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Gasping for air

April 24, 2024 Category: ColumnCommunity Narrative

Disclosures

This article draws inspiration from a Generocity Community Newsroom hosted in Delaware County in partnership with the Keystone First Wellness and Opportunity Center. Community members were empowered to speak truth to power and assert their voices. By providing a platform for local voices to be heard, Generocity Newsrooms allow attendees to shed light on critical issues facing their communities and emphasize the importance of reporting on topics that truly matter to the residents of the Philadelphia Region. Generocity Newsrooms and this coverage are supported by the Lenfest Institute of Journalism.

What good are cleaner streets if those who should enjoy them are inside on the respirator?

In a small city in Delaware County, over 7 million pounds of trash are incinerated per day. With alternative energy solutions rising in demand, waste-to-energy (WTE) facilities appear to solve our problems, when, in reality, they can contribute to decreased air quality and a host of health concerns for city residents. 

For over 30 years, Delaware Valley Resource Recovery Facility also known as Covanta, has been simultaneously creating jobs in Chester, PA while contributing to long-standing environmental, health, economic, and mental harm to its low-income and majority Black and brown residents.

Environmental injustices faced by residents of Chester, Pennsylvania  have deep roots dating back to the 1990s. Following decades of economic decline, government authorities, and private investors saw the city’s waterfront as an opportunity for industrial development. Unfortunately, this led to the transformation of Chester into a “waste magnet,” with the establishment of waste treatment facilities, chemical plants, oil refineries, and trash incinerators along the waterfront.

These industrial activities have had severe consequences for the residents of Chester. A 1995 report by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) highlighted the significant health risks faced by Chester residents due to pollution sources in the area. This pollution directly contributes to a host of negative health outcomes, including unacceptable risks of cancer, kidney and liver disease, as well as respiratory problems. One Chester resident, Maxine Morris, shares the progressive intensity of her asthma since moving to the city two years ago.

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“Some days, it’s hard to breathe. I want to enjoy the nature that’s available to us with my children, but I start to wonder, am I putting them in harm’s way?”

Covanta’s waste-to-energy facility in Chester incinerates approximately 2.4 billion pounds of trash per year with over 98% of the trash coming from outside the city. This exacerbates the environmental burden borne by the local community, contributing to increased particulate matter (PM) emissions and decreased air quality. Despite claims by Covanta that they operate within their particulate production limits, a report by The New School found that the facility emits more PM than any other similar facility in the country.

Equally important is the fact that there is a notable discrepancy between Covanta’s operations in Chester and those in predominantly white neighborhoods like Conshohocken. In a Philadelphia City Council meeting last October, it was highlighted that Covanta’s Conshohocken incinerator burns less than half the amount of trash than the Chester facility, despite having twice as many pollution control devices. This discrepancy underscores the harm and nationwide trend around the negative impacts that industrial corporations have on Black and Brown communities and Chester residents in particular. 

 

Community Accountability

Community engagement and advocacy play crucial roles in addressing these environmental and health impacts. Organizations like CRCQL (Chester Residents Concerned for Quality Living) have been actively involved in advocating for environmental justice and raising awareness about the adverse effects of Covanta’s operations on the community. Executive Director of CRCQL, Zulene Mayfield, explains the affects of  the city’s decreased air quality.

“40% of our children have asthma. And nobody talks about the financial ramifications of that… When I was in school, every school had school nurses. In this city, our nurses are split in between schools. They no longer have a full time nurse. So what happens when a child who was at school has an asthma attack? Who has access to that child’s inhaler? Have they properly been trained to use it? And if they have not, what happens? What happens if the ambulance is called? Immediately, a parent, most likely a single mother or a single dad, has to leave their job and go to the hospital. If you leave, you may not have a job.”

Today, as the city grapples with limited funding, critical services and community needs are going unmet, while private corporations continue to grow their profits and exacerbate health problems.

Residents of Chester continue to endure the detrimental impacts of Covanta’s operations, a shift towards comprehensive and holistic solutions that hold all stakeholders accountable becomes imperative. This includes corporations, the government, and members of the community.

Their solution is threefold and addresses the root causes of environmental injustice in Chester, PA, and the Delaware Valley region. Firstly, there is advocacy for creating a plan to close the doors on Covanta due to its egregious contributions to the denigration of the black and brown community in Chester. Chester residents have little belief that Covanta can provide anything besides their departure, as shared by Mayfield,

“We cannot coexist with an entity who is literally killing us. If our kids can’t breathe, their money means nothing to us.”

Real change requires concerted efforts from regulatory bodies, lawmakers, and community activists to hold Covanta accountable for its harmful practices and advocate for alternative waste management solutions that prioritize environmental and public health.

Community Activists, local non profits, and concerned community members came together last October to discuss whether Philadelphia would renew their contract with Covanta. With goals of becoming a zero waste city by 2035, it is imperative Chester and surrounding cities take a “holistic approach to how they manage materials and invest in businesses that take a circular economy approach to materials management” urges Samantha Wittchen, Director of Programs Operations for Circular Philadelphia.

 

Solutions from the North

As Covanta moves out, Philadelphia, which accounts for 30% of the trash processed by Covanta, can take proactive measures to reduce waste production within the city and discourage the exportation of waste to Chester. Waste to Energy contracts are expensive and create an addiction to a waste system where the city has to be producing waste or is met with large fines, explains Kirstie Pecci, Executive Director of Just Zero, to Philadelphia city council. By implementing policies and initiatives aimed at waste reduction, recycling, and composting, Philadelphia can significantly decrease its reliance on waste-to-energy facilities like Covanta’s incinerator.

Additionally, Philadelphia can take Toronto’s lead and distribute compost bins to every household. Since implementing the “Green Bin” strategy, between 2017 to 2022,  343,275 tons of waste have been diverted. Compost bin distribution combined with educational campaigns to encourage residents to divert bio waste away from landfills has allowed for sustainable renewable energy sources like gasification to replace incineration and create renewable natural gas that helps heat buildings and bring power to the city. 

The environmental and health challenges faced by Chester residents highlight the urgent need for comprehensive and holistic solutions that address the root causes of environmental racism. The detrimental impact of Covanta’s waste-to-energy facility on the community highlights the urgent and intersectional need for corporate accountability, government intervention and community empowerment.

 

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Approximately 2.4 billion pounds of trash is incinerated annually, over 98% of that trash comes from outside the city, and 30% of that comes from Philadelphia.

What can we do as a region to support our communities?

How can the region reduce environmental injustices and empower community solutions and needs?

 

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