A rare public meeting brings a loud virtual outcry of ‘No’ to Chester incinerator

The Covanta incinerator, a waste-to-energy facility that burns trash from Delaware County, Philadelphia, New York City, in Chester, Pa. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

The Covanta incinerator, a waste-to-energy facility that burns trash from Delaware County, Philadelphia, New York City, in Chester, Pa. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Nearly 200 people packed the online meeting room for the Delaware County Solid Waste Authority board’s first virtual public session, focused on the heavily criticized waste-to-energy incinerator in the city of Chester cited in a 2019 study as one of the largest polluters of its kind in the country.

Chester’s predominantly Black residents say they are the victims of environmental racism at the hands of the Covanta Holding Corp. operation, known as the Delaware Valley Resource Recovery Facility. The residents accuse the for-profit company of polluting the air they breathe and ruining the sense of community.

Covanta’s contract with the Solid Waste Authority expires on April 30, 2022, and those attending the rare authority meeting on Wednesday made themselves very clear: This facility must be shut down.

But it wasn’t just Chester residents and their neighbors across Delaware County who showed up. People from Philadelphia, New York, and even the Midwest were also present at the virtual meeting.

Zulene Mayfield chairs Chester Residents Concerned for Quality Living (CRCQL, pronounced “Circle”), and in an interview after the meeting she said it was heartwarming to see so many people speaking out in support of their mission.

Zulene Mayfield, chair of the Chester Residents Concerned for Quality Living. (Screenshot)
Zulene Mayfield, chair of the Chester Residents Concerned for Quality Living. (Screenshot)

“What I can tell you is that it’s emotional for me. It’s emotional to know that there’s a cavalry brewing for the people that live in Chester, that people are concerned, that people do care — and they see the inequity and the injustice, and the racism that is going on in this process,” Mayfield said.

Annie Nesmith, a member of CRCQL, told WHYY News that she was happy to see so many people on the call.

“It was just good to see the compassion. People showing their shared humanity. It was absolutely wonderful to be on that line,” Nesmith said.

However, both Mayfield and Nesmith criticized the Solid Waste Authority for the lack of promotion of the meeting and the lack of transparency regarding Covanta.

During the public comment portion of the meeting, the community sounded off on their personal experiences with the facility. Mayfield, for example, emphasized the importance of health over dollars in the decision-making process. Melissa Nester, of nearby Wallingford, talked about her concern over the particulate matter released from the incinerator’s smokestacks.

The plant, which has been open since 1992, emits more particulate matter than any other similar facility in the country, according to the 2019 study from the New School. Covanta has denied that contention.

Margaret Manfield, who lives in Secane, thanked the Solid Waste Authority for hosting the public meeting but also called the incinerator’s presence in Chester an example of environmental racism during a climate crisis.

Robin Schaufler, a member of nearby Swarthmore Borough’s Environmental Advisory Council, said the children of Chester are being poisoned by the pollution emitted from the facility and called on the county to adopt a zero-waste program.

Mark Wallace, a professor of religion and environmental studies at Swarthmore College, expressed sympathy for his neighbors in Chester, who he said are bearing an immense burden. He also expressed the belief that a facility of this kind would never be built in a wealthier area, like the one where he currently lives.

In an interview after the meeting, Wallace said he has been following the incinerator story in Chester for about 30 years. He got acquainted with Mayfield, of CRCQL, a long time ago, he said, and she showed him what Chester was dealing with in person.

“I was overwhelmed by the stench, people complaining about rodents, the foundations of their homes had cracked because of the constant truck pressure, and, in those days, the trucks came right through the residential neighborhood,” Wallace said.

He said he ended class early on what was the students’ last day just to attend the virtual meeting. “But I got there late, so I didn’t hear everything everyone said, but at one point I looked at the record of the number of people … it was right around 200 people. So I thought, ‘Wow, this is not like any typical public hearing that I’ve attended. There’s a lot of energy in opposition to the incinerator.’”

Support from beyond Pennsylvania’s borders

One thing that set this meeting apart from the countless municipal meetings that happen on any given afternoon was its visitors from outside Pennsylvania.

Kerim Odekon of Long Island, New York, came as a representative of the Brookhaven Landfill Action and Remediation Group. Odekon said a Covanta operation dumps ash near his neighborhood of North Bellport, and he told the audience that he came in an act of solidarity with the residents of Chester.

Alan Muller represented a group called Green Delaware that follows environmental controversies such as this, which he called “one of the most notorious examples of environmental racism in the world.” He blasted the Solid Waste Authority, saying it was just paying lip service.

After the public meeting, Muller told WHYY News that he was attending all the way from Red Wing, Minnesota.

“And I can look out my window and see a garbage incinerator smokestack … There’s not a lot of them around. But there’s a few dozen around in the country, and I think you’ll find a lot of people who’ve been involved in the squabbling over garbage incinerators get pretty passionate about it.”

Prior to the public comments, the Solid Waste Authority board gave a brief presentation about details of the current contract and the state of the plans going forward as members weigh their options in determining Covanta’s future in Chester.

“As we are looking at the Covanta contract, whether it should be extended, you know, renewed for any period, etc., we, as a board, it was suggested that we do a needs assessment, and the needs assessment with looks at the long-term needs of the authority, what our options are, what the impact is of each of those options,” said Delaware County Councilwoman Christine Reuther, the newly selected vice chair of the board.

What the future could hold

One option would be to renew the contract with Covanta, another would be to switch directly to landfill operation, and a final option would be to utilize a combination of recycling and composting.

The contract with Covanta is essentially an arrangement 30-plus years in the making. Every four or five years, the contract has been renewed.

“The authority has made it a guarantee, a commitment to Covanta, that the authority would deliver at least 300,000 tons of solid waste to the Covanta incinerator facility … the authority has the right to go as high as 370,000 tons per year at a stated price, which was in the most recent contract, which was entered into four years ago,” Joe Crawford, the new solicitor for the authority, said during the meeting.

“At the same time, under the contract, the authority has given Covanta the right to deliver up to 450,000 tons of ash, the result of the incineration of the waste … to the authority’s landfill in Berks County,” Crawford said.

With the contract’s expiration date approaching, Covanta has the right to give Delco’s Solid Waste Authority notice within the next 60 days of its intention to keep the facility operational.

The board expects Covanta to continue to want to operate the facility. Crawford explained to those at the meeting that the authority has the “right, but not the obligation” to seek an option to continue to use the facility and respond to Covanta within another 60-day window.

Reuther, who was just appointed to the authority board in February, told WHYY News in an interview that it was her idea to have a virtual public meeting.

“And, surprisingly enough, the entire board agreed, and I think it was the first time that anybody had made that suggestion. So I appreciate the willingness to do that,” Reuther said.

Chester is disproportionately “burdened by a lot of industrial uses,” Reuther said, and she was glad to hear from city residents about how it directly affects their lives.

At this point, Reuther said, she has not yet made up her mind about what needs to happen with Covanta’s contract.

“I think there’s got to be more of a reason to keep the contract in place for any period of time, than just, ‘We don’t know what else to do,’” Reuther said.

She acknowledged, however, that others on the County Council may see it differently.

“I know that Brian Zidek, who’s the County Council chair here in Delaware County, would disagree with me. He comes from the world of private enterprise and a closely held business where you can make decisions right away. Public entities, even municipal authorities, may take a little longer to make changes, and the impacts are going to ripple out,” Reuther said.

But she said that she would be unlikely to commit to another five-year contract with Covanta, and that ultimately she believes the Solid Waste Authority “should not be about making money on people getting rid of stuff and burning stuff.”

Even if the contract were terminated, Reuther said, Covanta could still be in Chester to stay.

“I just want people to understand that pushing the county Solid Waste Authority to terminate a contract with Covanta is not necessarily going to stop the incinerator from operating, or even operating at the level that it is operating at. I just want people to have realistic expectations about that,” she said.

Toward the conclusion of the public meeting, Don Cammarata, a representative of Covanta, defended the company from the pollution claims made by the community.

He did acknowledge, though, that Chester carries a heavy “burden.”

The Solid Waste Authority’s board will be assessing finances to weigh the options. But for the residents of Chester, words without action are futile.

“Don’t tell me you give a damn about dollars and pennies and you’re polluting our whole entire community,” Mayfield said. “We just want our children to have a chance to grow up. Our seniors should have a chance to live in comfort in houses that they struggled and bought and paid for.”

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