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July 18, 2023

'Midnight Oil,' a documentary about the 2019 Southwest Philly oil refinery explosion, now streaming on YouTube

Bilal Motley, who worked at Philadelphia Energy Solutions for more than 15 years, documented its final days and the fight for environmental justice in his 2020 film

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Midnight Oil Documentary Thom Carroll/For PhillyVoice

'Midnight Oil,' a documentary about the final days at the Philadelphia Energy Solutions oil refinery following the 2019 explosion, is available to stream for free on YouTube.

In 2017, Bilal Motley quit his job as a manager at Philadelphia Energy Solutions, the South Philadelphia oil refinery he worked at for nearly 15 years. 

An aspiring filmmaker, the Delaware native had been working on a script about an explosion at a fictional oil refinery. He returned to his job to make extra money in 2019, just a few months before an alkylation unit burst into flames, sending plumes of smoke tinged with toxic chemicals into the air.

PES eventually ceased operations despite some members of its 1,000-person staff pushing to keep the refinery open and retain their jobs. Motley stayed on as a maintenance worker until that September, then left for a job at a local university. Motley did not think keeping the refinery open would be good for Philadelphia, WHYY reported in 2020. 

Motley's experiences formed "Midnight Oil," a 30-minute documentary about his struggle to maintain relationships with refinery workers and the fight for environmental justice in the wake of the explosion. It is now available to stream for free on YouTube as part of Black Public Media's AfroPoP Digital ShortsThe filmmaker received death threats following the film's first screening in 2020 before it made its official premiere at Philly's BlackStar Film Festival that same year, the Inquirer reported. 

The film is primarily shot on Motley's cell phone as talks about his refinery job with friends and coworkers. Early on, Motley says that he spends more time at PES than he does at his own home, including several Thanksgiving and Christmas celebrations. 

In his own recollection of the explosion, Motley talks about being with other managers in the early morning of June 21 when they realized something blew up in the "acid unit" of the refinery, which Motley describes as "the boogeyman." In the aftermath, Motley talks about the devastation of seeing the refinery's ruins and the staff's hope that the refinery could be rebuilt and reopened. 

Motley discusses hearing horror stories about explosions and fires and how disasters would impact workers, but that he had yet to consider how they would impact the surrounding Southwest Philly community. 

"I could no longer sit on the sidelines," Motley told 6ABC. "It's painful to watch because I lost a lot of friends from this. A lot of people don't talk to me anymore on the plant because I took a stance and said it should not reopen. The community doesn't want it. And it does hurt. I do miss them. It's been really complicated for me." 

Motley shows footage from public forums, including arguments between refinery workers who wanted to keep their jobs and community members to wanted to reduce the risk of breathing in the refinery's toxic chemicals. Some residents expressed that their families suffered from asthma, heart disease and cancer as a result of the emissions. 

Neighborhood activists and climate advocates talk with Motley about the impacts the refinery has had on individuals in the area, leading to his eventual belief that the refinery should be shut down permanently and should not exist near residential communities. 

Hilco Redevelopment Partners, the company that has been handling the explosion's cleanup, revealed in 2021 that the site would be developed into the Bellwether District, a future hub for e-commerce, logistics and life sciences. The site could create as many as 19,000 jobs over the next 15 years. Construction began in early 2023. 

Motley is currently working "Trash & Burn," a documentary about Chester's trash incinerator and the fight to stop it from polluting the Philly suburb. An untitled documentary about high school track and field athletes in Chester, written and directed by Motley, is in post-production, according to his website