Philadelphia refinery workers plan for uncertain future after jobs go up in smoke

FILE PHOTO: A worker leaves the Philadelphia Energy Solutions oil refinery carrying personal items, after employees were told the complex would shut down following a recent fire that caused significant damage, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, U.S., June 26, 2019. REUTERS/Laila Kearney/File Photo

By Jarrett Renshaw and Laila Kearney

PHILADELPHIA (Reuters) – At Erin Pub, a classic Irish neighborhood bar in Norwood, Pennsylvania, dozens of Philadelphia Energy Solutions Inc’s unionized employees crammed around the bar on Wednesday night, toasting to their friendships after learning that day of plans to close the refinery permanently after a devastating fire less than a week earlier.

They were openly worried about what the job loss would mean for their lives and their families. The refinery, the biggest on the East Coast, employed more than 1,000 people, including more than 600 unionized workers. Most were told their jobs would end by mid-July, while others would stay for two weeks beyond that.

“I have a kid I’m about to put through college, and I have no idea how I’m going to do that now,” said one worker, who had been with the refinery for more than a decade and who asked not to be identified.

The workers, both union and non-union, are not expected to get severance packages or health benefits, dumping them into a shrinking energy workforce without a parachute. In the months leading up the closure, the company saved cash by laying off a number of salaried employees, all who received standard severance packages, two sources familiar with the company told Reuters.

“We have some people who have spent their whole careers in the refinery. It’s not just a workplace, it’s a culture,” said Ryan O’Callaghan, president of the local United Steelworkers union and an operator at the refinery.

Many had been through the plant’s ups and downs, from good years earlier this decade to a bankruptcy process last year, but the fire has left them jobless in a region that only employs about 2,000 workers in the refining industry.

“These jobs are hard to duplicate. It’s not like there are a lot of refineries around here anymore, so it’s going to be a challenge,” said Steve Bussone, 54, a union lab technician with 23 years at the refinery.

He was hoping to retire in about ten years, but the closure may delay those plans. He was not preparing to start over at his age and said the potential lack of a severance package makes the whole process that more daunting.

The June 21 fire started in a butane vat and was followed by a series of explosions that ripped through the 335,000 barrel-per-day plant, the oldest on the East Coast, which destroyed at least one key unit and threw fragments onto nearby highways.

Just four days later, Chief Executive Mark Smith said the plant would close indefinitely. The company is planning a sale, but that process, and a subsequent reopening is not likely to happen for years, if at all.

“We cannot commit that (a restart) will occur,” Smith said in a letter to the union. “As such, all layoffs are expected to be permanent.”

For some, Wednesday’s official announcement was a confirmation of what they knew was inevitable after the massive fire.

The plant banked big profits in 2013 and 2014 as it used trains to bring crude oil in from the burgeoning shale business in North Dakota. However, after a 40-year-ban on crude oil exports was ended in 2015, oil drillers found it more profitable to ship crude to U.S. Gulf-area refiners by pipeline and to export destinations.

Since then, the refinery has struggled, even after reducing its credit obligations through a 2018 bankruptcy process and having slashed worker benefits and pensions. Its cash balance had dwindled by 40% to $87.7 million in just three months, leaving it in a precarious position before the fire.

Still, the decision came as a bitter blow, as previous owner Carlyle Group paid itself out nearly $600 million in dividend-style distributions, many taken through loans against the plant’s assets, since taking over the refinery in 2012.

Rich Francis, 28, a gasoline trader at the company, was one of the 150 or so non-union employees fired on Wednesday as the company seeks to shut the refinery.

Like the others, Francis got no severance package and his family’s health benefits run out at the end of July – which will hit hard, as his wife recently had a kidney transplant that requires expensive medication daily.

“They have given me so little runway here. It’s real disappointing in how the company handled this,” Francis said.

The United Steelworkers president said the union is expecting to negotiate severance packages and benefits for union members – but also pushing to rebuild the unit so the refinery can keep running.

“That’s what we’re fighting for,” said O’Callaghan, who started with PES in 2007. “The entire refinery runs without all units on all the time.”

(Reporting By Jarrett Renshaw and Laila Kearney; additional reporting by Stephanie Kelly; writing by David Gaffen; Editing by Marguerita Choy)

Justice Department probes Catholic Church sex abuse in Pennsylvania

Storm clouds pass over a Roman Catholic church in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, U.S. August 14, 2018. REUTERS/Jason Cohn

(Reuters) – The U.S. Justice Department has opened an investigation into child sex abuse by priests in Pennsylvania, four Roman Catholic Church dioceses said on Thursday.

The dioceses of Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Erie and Allentown told Reuters that they had received federal subpoenas following a state grand jury report that alleged over 300 Catholic priests in Pennsylvania had sexually abused children over 70 years. The Associated Press first reported on Thursday the Justice Department investigation.

The dioceses said they were cooperating with the investigation but declined further comment.

The Justice Department and U.S. Attorney’s Office in Philadelphia declined to comment.

An 884-page report made public in August by Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro after a two-year investigation contained graphic examples of children being groomed and sexually abused by clergymen. Shapiro said at the time that it was largely based on documents from secret archives kept by the dioceses, including handwritten confessions by priests.

The report cited 301 priests, some of whom have died.

In September, U.S. Catholic bishops said they would set up a hotline for accusations of sexual abuse against clergy members and lay persons employed by the Church.

(Reporting by Bernie Woodall in Fort Lauderdale, Florida; Writing by Andrew Hay Editing by Lisa Shumaker)

FBI nabs man it says planned July 4 attacks on Cleveland, Philadelphia

Fireworks at Morningside 7-4-17

By Makini Brice

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The FBI has arrested a man who it said planned to bomb Cleveland’s Fourth of July celebrations and then stand by and watch “it go off,” federal officials said on Monday.

Demetrius Pitts, 48, who had expressed allegiance to the al Qaeda militant group, was arrested on Sunday after a meeting with an undercover FBI agent where he said he planned to plant a bomb at a parade celebrating the U.S. Independence Day holiday and intended to target other locations in Cleveland and Philadelphia.

Many major American cities mark the holiday with fireworks and parades, and typically ramp up security around such events.

An undercover FBI agent helped Pitts pick the location for his planned attack, near a planned fireworks show and multiple U.S. government buildings, the FBI said.

“I’m gonna be downtown when the – when the thing go off. I’m gonna be somewhere cuz I wanna see it go off,” Pitts told an undercover FBI agent who he believed was affiliated with al Qaeda, the FBI said in court documents.

Pitts also suggested giving the children of military personnel remote control cars packed with explosives during the parade so the kids would unwittingly detonate the bombs, the FBI said.

Pitts was charged with attempting to provide material support to a designated foreign terrorist organization. He faces up to 20 years in prison if convicted.

An FBI source gave Pitts a bus pass and a phone to conduct surveillance ahead of his planned attack, prosecutors said.

Pitts, who lives in the Cleveland suburb of Maple Heights, also discussed possibly traveling to San Francisco for reconnaissance for al Qaeda, the FBI said.

It was not immediately clear if he had retained a lawyer, and relatives could not be reached for comment.

“This defendant, by his own words and by his own deeds, wanted to attack our nation and its ideals,” said Justin Herdman, the U.S. attorney for northern Ohio.

Officials said Pitts is an American citizen who had been radicalized in the United States.

In 2015, U.S. law enforcement officials said they had arrested more than 10 people inspired by the Islamic State militant group ahead of the Fourth of July holiday, saying the arrests had disrupted planned attacks.

A pair of ethnic Chechen brothers inspired by al Qaeda killed three people and injured more than 260 with a pair of homemade bombs at the Boston Marathon in 2013.

(Additional reporting by Barbara Goldberg and Diana Kruzman in New York; Editing by Scott Malone, Jeffrey Benkoe, Frances Kerry and Jonathan Oatis)

Winter storm to strike U.S. East, snarling traffic, closing schools

A pedestrian walks through a late season snow storm in New York, U.S., March 21, 2018. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson

(Reuters) – Millions of commuters along the U.S. East Coast will face another round of heavy snow, ice and wind gusts on Wednesday when the fourth major snow storm this month strikes the region, closing schools, grounding flights and halting buses and trains.

The nor’easter storm is on track to dump up to a foot of snow and bring gusts of up to 50 miles per hour (80 kmph) to major cities such as New York, Philadelphia and Boston on Wednesday and into Thursday, the National Weather Service said.

“Significant amounts of snow, sleet and ice will make travel very hazardous or impossible,” the service said in an advisory for New Jersey.

More than 2,000 flights had already been canceled on Tuesday evening at the three major airports that serve New York. Airlines said they were waiving fees to change flights from and to the East Coast.

The storm forced schools across the region including those in Philadelphia and New York, the largest school district in the United States, to cancel classes on Wednesday.

“For everyone’s safety, because it could be such a big storm … we want to be ahead of it,” New York Mayor Bill de Blasio said on Tuesday.

Both Greyhound bus service and Amtrak passenger train service suspended or abbreviated routes for the day. Throughout the East Coast, local bus and train services that millions of people rely on to commute to and from work and school also canceled service on Wednesday.

Widespread power outages were also expected on Wednesday as heavy snow and ice along winds may topple trees and power lines, the service said.

The latest storm comes after storms on March 2, 7 and 12 left at least 9 people dead across the region and more than 2 million homes and businesses without power.

(Reporting by Brendan O’Brien in Milwaukee; Editing by Amrutha Gayathri)

Pope’s Visit Brings Security Concerns, Including Police Impersonators

Law enforcement personnel are worried that the Pope’s visit to the United States could attract terrorist attacks and even go as far as impersonating police officers, EMTs, and firefighters to launch such attacks.

“The impersonators’ main goals are to further their attack plan and do harm to unsuspecting citizens as well as members of the emergency services community,” said the bulletin, titled “First Responder Impersonators: The New Terrorist Threat.”

The Pennsylvania State Police’s Criminal Intelligence Center distributed a memo to law enforcement throughout the northeast that imposters could use false identification to enter secure areas or to get away undetected from a crime scene. Pennsylvania State Police stated that the memo was not specifically meant for the Pope’s visit and officials confirmed that there were no credible threats known against Pope Francis at this time. The New York State Police Department and the Metropolitan Police Department in Washington also confirmed there were no known threats tied to Pope Francis’ visit.

FBI and Homeland Security reports based the premises for the memo, which made statements that suspects in the U.S. and abroad were in possession of police uniforms. In the past, authorities have arrested potential terrorists who were in possession of U.S. military uniforms, fake IDs, and police uniforms.

“A wide variety of products such as clothing, weapons and tactical gear can be purchased on the Internet by any consumer, regardless of a confirmed affiliation to emergency services, government or law enforcement agency,” the statement read. The document also advised that police be on high alert for theft of uniforms, credentials, and emergency vehicles.

Police officials are also warning citizens to be aware of their surroundings during the Pope’s visit, especially when in large crowded areas. The memo states that event locations and public transit are high risk areas because of the large groups of people and the amount of attention the city will have during the papal visit.

According to House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Michael McCaul, the U.S. has stopped at least one threat against Pope Francis last week.

During the Pope’s visit, security preparations include screening checkpoints, airspace restrictions, and a ban on selfie sticks and backpacks at the events. Along the motorcade routes there will be multiple airport-style screenings and extensive street closures in every city he visits. There will also be a significant increase in the amount of first responders deployed in the cities.

Philadelphia Train Crash: Train Sped Up Before Derailment

Investigators with the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB)  say the Amtrak train that crashed in Philadelphia accelerated from 70 to over 100 miles per hour as it entered the curve where it jumped the tracks.

At 106 miles per hour, the train was over twice the 50 miles per hour speed limit for the curve.

The discovery was made after reviewing a video taken from a camera facing the front of the train according to the NTSB.

NTSB board member Robert Sumwalt says he’s hopeful the engineer will be able to give clarity as to why the train accelerated into the curve.

“What I believe is a very good way to interview people is, honestly, to not ask them questions, to basically give them a figurative blank sheet of paper and ask them what they recall,” Sumwalt said Thursday. “Really, we want to know his account of what he recalls leading into this tragic accident.”

Robert Goggin, attorney for engineer Brandon Bostian, says that his client cannot remember anything about the crash.

“He remembers coming into the curve, he remembers attempting to reduce speed, but thereafter he was knocked out just like all the other passengers on the train,” Goggin said on ABC’s “Good Morning America” program.  He said Bostian suffered a concussion and gash on his head.

“We will have to wait for his memory to come back or for other facts to be ascertained by the NTSB,” the lawyer said.

Eight people died in the accident after the remains of the eighth victim were found today by cadaver dogs.  All 243 people on board the train have now been accounted for by Philadelphia officials.

Train Crash Kills 7 In Philadelphia

Officials in Philadelphia are attempting to find the cause of a train crash Tuesday night that left 7 people dead and more than 200 injured.

Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter said that seven cars of the Amtrak train bound for New York jumped the tracks and that over 200 people are in area hospitals.  Eight victims are in critical condition.

The Wall Street Journal reported that the train was going 100 miles per hour at the time it jumped the tracks at a curve, more than twice the speed limit for that portion of track.  Investigators are focusing on that excessive speed as the cause of the derailment.

That belief was backed by an Amtrak official who told a conference call that excessive speed was a focus of the investigation.

Mayor Nutter said the “black box” data recorder of the train has been recovered and is in the hands of the National Transportation Safety Board.

The President issued a statement sharing his shock about the accident.

“Michelle and I were shocked and deeply saddened to hear of the derailment,” Mr. Obama said in a written statement. “Our thoughts and prayers go out to the families and friends of those we lost last night, and to the many passengers who today begin their long road to recovery.”

Witnesses say the crash was very violent with people being thrown around the rail cars.  Andrew Brenner told the WSJ that seats were ripped from the floor.

“I got thrown like a penny,” said Mr. Brenner, who said he weighs 250 pounds. “That is how violent this was.”

American Bible Society Sells Headquarters; Relocates to Philadelphia

After almost 200 years in the Big Apple, the American Bible Society is moving to the city of Brotherly Love.

The ABS sold their New York headquarters for $300 million dollars and announced a move to the history center of Philadelphia, an area called “the most historic square mile in America.”

“We are thrilled that we will be starting a third century of service headquartered here in Philadelphia,” said American Bible Society President and CEO Roy Peterson. “Home to America’s first hopes as a new nation, Philadelphia is now home to a very bright future for American Bible Society.”

The group said the sale of the New York building was intended to provide funding for further ministry outreach.

“The 1865 Broadway property has served us well for nearly 50 years. The decision to sell the property was made to unlock the value of the site to further the mission of American Bible Society,” ministry’s Board Chairman Pieter Dearolf said earlier. “As we approach a third century of mission, we are laying the groundwork for the next 100 years of inviting people to experience the life-changing message of the Bible.”

The first president of the ABS, Elias Boudinot, was a Philadelphia native.

“Philadelphia is a place where businesses and nonprofits receive a warm reception,” Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter was quoted as saying. “On behalf of the City of Philadelphia, we’re honored to welcome American Bible Society to its new home.”

Final Two Gosnell Employees Sentenced

The final two employees of the “abortion house of horrors” run by convicted murderer Kermit Gosnell have been sentenced for their parts in killing babies born alive and the death of a young woman from a botched abortion.

Lynda Wiliams, 45, the acting phlebotomist at the clinic, was sentenced to 5 to 10 years in prison on two counts of third-degree murder.  However, Philadelphia Common Pleas Court Judge Benjamin Lerner then reduced the overall term to just 2 ½ years in prison.

Williams had been charged with multiple charges but they were ultimately reduced to just the two counts of third-degree murder.

Tina Baldwin, 48, who was the receptionist for the clinic but also illegally gave anesthesia to women when she had no training to do it or licensing to do it, was sentenced to 30 months of probation for her guilty please to sustaining a corrupt organization.

Baldwin had been facing multiple charges as well, including corruption of a minor for having her 15-year-old daughter participating in the illegal activities of the clinic.

The case did have some positives result.  Jack McMahon, the attorney for Gosnell, told Fox News that abortion should be banned after 17 weeks.  He also called for inspection of abortion clinics, which has been roundly denounced by pro-abortion groups.

Tips For Jesus Strikes Again

The men behind the nationwide movement Tips For Jesus have struck again, this time at a restaurant in Philadelphia.

An unidentified group of men have been leaving massive tips for waitresses, bartenders and other lower income workers with an emblem marked Tips For Jesus.  The name of the customer is scratched out so that they cannot be identified.

The mystery men left a $5,000 tip for a waitress and a $2,000 tip for a bartender at Philadelphia’s Rouge restaurant.

“When he wrote down the tip, to be honest with you, it didn’t feel real,” waitress Jess Nguyen told Philly.com.  “I feel like I won the lottery.”

Nguyen said her tip will to go paying for her college classes to earn a teaching degree and the bartender, Sam Trasatti, said she will use the money to help build a personal training business.

The identity of the man behind the Tips for Jesus campaign has been a secret but some media websites are suggesting it is Jack Selby, a former vice president of  the online payment service PayPal.