The Schuylkill Expressway cuts through the oil tank farms of southwest Philadelphia, where commuters are greeted by a radio station billboard commanding them to "wake up and smell the karma."
But whatever karma smells like, there is something else in the air: the acrid odors wafting out of the Sun Co. oil refinery.
That has made the streets of Philadelphia, like those of dozens of other communities across the country, a key battleground between advocates of vigorous enforcement of environmental laws and critics who contend that the federal government is tying up industry with too many regulations.
At issue are tough new restrictions designed to protect neighborhoods surrounding petroleum refineries from the harmful effects of such toxic substances as benzene, methyl ethyl ketone, hexane, toluene and hydrogen chloride. The House has passed legislation prohibiting the Environmental Protection Agency from enforcing the rules, which it issued in July. The Senate has moved in the same direction, raising the prospect of a clash between Congress and President Clinton when legislation funding the EPA reaches the White House.
The stakes in the debate include multimillion-dollar investments, the economic viability of smaller refineries and the jobs they supply and, possibly, the health of local residents.
Yet an even broader question is at play in Washington. It involves a fundamental disagreement over whether the executive branch or Congress will assume the dominant role in setting domestic policy. It is perhaps the central issue in the often-angry relationship between the President and the Republican majority that is controlling the agenda on Capitol Hill.
Thus, the debate over the environmental regulations is a piece "of a much larger picture that ranges across the policy domain," in the view of Thomas E. Mann, director of governmental studies at the Brookings Institution, a nonpartisan think tank in Washington.
"This is as clear and dramatic and unambiguous a shift in policy views on the Hill as we've ever seen in our lifetime," Mann said. "They're going after this with every weapon at their disposal."
It is a shift that troubles many residents of refinery neighborhoods.
"Take it from a registered Republican, I'm not happy," said Gloria Inverso, who lives 1 1/2 miles from the Sun Co. refinery in south Philadelphia, referring to the GOP-engineered regulatory rollback. "With what they're doing, the only steps we've taken forward, they're taking backward. If these senators and congressmen were made to live in this neighborhood with their families, I don't think they'd like it."
When the EPA got into the business of trying to clean up the nation's air, one of the first industries that drew its attention was petroleum. Although significant progress has been made in reducing emissions of smog-causing pollutants, oil refineries across the country still exhale a mix of pollutants--nine toxic tons an hour, day in and day out, the government says.
Things used to be a lot worse. Two decades after the EPA began combatting air pollution, the air around the refineries that dot a corridor stretching from the huge Exxon Corp. complex in Linden, N.J., near Newark, south to the shores of the Delaware Bay, is much cleaner--to the eye and nose at least--than it was in the 1970s.
The provision restricting enforcement of the new emission limits is one of 17 attached to the EPA funding legislation in the House, where anti-regulatory sentiment runs high. The others, each intended to put new controls on the enforcement of environmental regulations, would limit wetlands protection, water-quality standards in the Great Lakes, standards on toxic emissions from kilns used in the manufacturing of cement and standards for the amount of arsenic permitted in tap water.
In addition, the House funding bill would cut the agency's spending next year by roughly 23%. The Senate version of the legislation would reduce the EPA budget by 33% but does not contain the 17 regulatory rollbacks. House and Senate negotiators are expected to begin working out their differences as early as this week. The funding cuts and the anti-regulatory riders have drawn the threat of a presidential veto.
The attempt to undo government regulations by attaching restrictions to the spending bill is "special-interest politics at its worst," said Paul Billings, assistant director for government relations of the American Lung Assn.
Refiners say they are still not certain what rules are needed.
"When an agency asks an industry to spend $100 million a year, we want to make sure we will reduce risks," said a senior official at the National Petroleum Refiners Assn., adding that the EPA rules are based on old data and do not provide that assurance.
The official, who spoke on the condition that her name not be used, argued that refinery emissions are expected to cause no more than three new cancer cases throughout the U.S. population in any given year. "This is an extremely low cancer risk," she said.
The EPA estimates that the regulations would eliminate 60% of the toxic substances the petroleum industry releases into the air annually, and would help level the industrial playing field.
"The petroleum industry is getting a special break. Petroleum has a history of seeking exemptions. They tend to be an industry that tries to evade the requirements," according to an agency official who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Sun Co. maintains that it already has upgraded environmental controls at its 1,440-acre plant, the largest refinery in the East, and that less than $10 million would be required to bring it into compliance with the new regulations. Thus, it says, the outcome of the debate would have only a minimal impact on the refinery.
"We have made some significant improvements in emissions controls and continue to do so," said spokesman Lawrence Davis. "We're going to comply with whatever is required. This refinery is not a battleground for this issue. . . . It would be misleading to set it up as that."
The new restrictions cover large and small refineries in such diverse locations as southern Texas and North Dakota--177 refineries in 34 states, including 24 sites in California. According to the EPA, California refineries alone turned out 5.2 million pounds of pollutants in 1993, the most recent year for which the figures are available.
In Philadelphia's southwestern reaches, the industrial jungle of cracking towers, pipes, collecting pools and furnaces now owned by Sun Co. has been refining crude oil for more than 100 years. During World War I, it supplied more than half of the aviation fuel used by the allied air forces. Now, it can handle as much as 307,000 barrels of crude oil a day.
Across the Delaware River, at Eagle Point in New Jersey, Coastal Corp. operates a much smaller facility, producing a comparatively modest 130,000 barrels of gasoline, diesel fuel and jet fuel daily. Coastal has already closed some refineries, citing the cost of bringing them into compliance with environmental standards.
If Congress does not succeed in forcing the EPA to roll back enforcement of its regulations, "it would cost us millions of dollars to comply," said Brian Mitchell, a spokesman at Coastal's corporate headquarters in Houston.
Such arguments--as well as Sun's $120-million project to enclose a waste-water collecting system that was exposed to the air and ground at another refinery on the Delaware border--have done little to calm residents here.
Their concerns, if anything, have been heightened in recent months, in part by preliminary findings of a $500,000 study undertaken by Johns Hopkins University and the EPA to assess the impact of refinery emissions on the health of nearby residents.
An interim draft states that "a preliminary evaluation of mortality data for the years 1978-82 revealed increased mortality in the study area for all causes, [including] cancer and pneumonia/influenza, when compared to rates for the city, state, and U.S."
Inverso, the disenchanted Republican who lives near the Sun plant, has her own anecdotal accounts of the health problems in south Philadelphia.
It is a community she knows well. Her grandfather moved to the 900 block of Reed Street 69 years ago, when her father was three months old. Years later, her father bought a house on the same block, and she has been living there with her parents since she was born 48 years ago.
"This is known as cancer alley, south and southwest Philly," she said. "One block on South 10th Street--five households in a row with at least one family member with cancer, some with at least three. Respiratory problems are just as rampant."
South Philadelphia and southwest Philadelphia are two distinct blue-collar neighborhoods, home to 250,000 people, Veterans Stadium, brick row houses, tangles of overhead utility lines, junkyards--and, in the midst of the urban tableau, a finely kept botanical garden older than the United States itself. The goldenrod, Pennsylvania fleabane and purple aster are blooming in Bartram's Garden, juxtaposed against the oil storage tanks that abut Schuylkill River.
After surveying the sprawl of the refinery, its towers flaring gas into the afternoon sky near the Passyunk Avenue Bridge, Joanne P. Rossi, who has lived six blocks from the refinery since 1979, said the EPA needs "to be given more power" and its regulations "need to be given teeth."
"The community is fed up. They don't want to shut Sun down. It's 1,000 jobs. But they're tired of the odors," she said, volunteering, as did Inverso, that she is a Republican--and one who "wouldn't register any other way."
"The government needs to find a way to assure the safety of the public. We realize [the plant] is a necessity. But there has to be a line drawn somewhere," she said.
The toxic substances covered by the regulations imposed in July are known or suspected causes of cancer, including leukemia, in humans, or are associated with respiratory and neurological illnesses and reproductive difficulties.
"These are the first rules designed to protect the communities that live around these plants" from the hazards of toxic emissions, said Greg Wetstone, legislative director of the Natural Resources Defense Council.
The campaign to undo the rules "is an unprecedented effort to look at rules that have been through a very elaborate public process," including a two-year period in which the agency solicited comments from the public and from industry, Wetstone said.
Now, he said, industry and House supporters are trying "to turn them around through the back door to say: 'Don't issue these.' As if these people are exempt from getting cancer."