Chester activists denounce a new Philadelphia Union-Subaru partnership as environmental injustice

Subaru Park in Chester, Pa.  (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Subaru Park in Chester, Pa. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

The Philadelphia Union and Subaru of America have announced a new partnership that will make Subaru Park in Chester the first “zero landfill” stadium in Major League Soccer. However, some Chester residents see this not as a climate triumph, but as environmental injustice.

According to Subaru of America, the partnership will divert roughly 357,000 pounds of waste from local landfills. Non-recyclable trash from the stadium will be burned at the incinerator in Chester operated by Covanta Holding Corp. — the company some residents of the city and environmental activists accuse of currently polluting the air. Spectra and Recycle Track Systems Inc. will also be involved with the operation.

A press release says the steam generated “will turn the turbines to produce electricity for the Philadelphia area,” but some Chester residents fear they will pay the costs.

Covanta’s Delaware Valley Resource Recovery Center has operated in Chester, a predominantly Black community, since 1992. Incinerating about 3,500 tons of trash a day, the center was cited in a 2019 New School report as one of the largest emitters of pollution for a facility of its kind in the country.

Zulene Mayfield, chair of Chester Residents Concerned for Quality Living (CRCQL, pronounced “Circle”), said Subaru and the Philadelphia Union need to reconsider their partnership with the Covanta incinerator.

“That is not what you do in an environmental justice community. I think it’s asinine — and I think that they should really rethink and reformulate what it is that they want to do with their trash,” Mayfield said.

Frustrated by news of the partnership, nearly two dozen people from Chester and elsewhere in Delaware County gathered at the stadium May 31 to hand out flyers highlighting their concern to Union fans before a match.

Mayfield said that Subaru and the Union have the opportunity to be strong allies with the community, but that they aren’t in tune with some of the residents.

“If they were really good partners, they would know that that is not a feasible option for them in the city of Chester,” Mayfield said.

CRCQL has requested a meeting with Subaru representatives, Mayfield said, noting that the company has been “open” to having a conversation. But she added that the meeting has yet to be arranged.

WHYY News reached out to both Subaru of America and the Philadelphia Union for comment, but did not immediately receive responses from them.

Covanta’s contract with the Delaware County Solid Waste Authority expires in April 2022, and a community-versus-company showdown is expected at some point.

In a statement to WHYY News, James Reagan, a Covanta spokesperson, defended the new partnership with Subaru Park.

“We are aware of a small group of activists spreading misinformation flyers at Union games, but have not seen broad concern from the Chester community about Subaru Park avoiding landfills and utilizing waste-to-energy for managing non-recyclable waste,” Reagan said.

He added that incinerators like the Delaware Valley Resource Recovery Center are second to recycling as the most sustainable way to manage waste.

“I would just encourage that any public discourse on the facility and its impact should be based in science and not in rhetoric. That flyer that was passed out is fear-mongering at its best,” Reagan said.

Mike Ewall, founder and executive director of the Energy Justice Network and a CRCQL collaborator, would beg to differ.

A staunch opponent of the Covanta incinerator, Ewall was not happy to hear of the partnership. He accuses the companies of “greenwashing” their behavior — “pretending that something polluting is actually a green activity,” Ewall said.

He added that the “zero landfill” partnership incorrectly co-opts the “zero waste” rhetoric that has been used internationally.

The campaign to end the partnership will continue, Ewall said: There will be more flyer-handout events. But he said that the groups and community members all remain focused on making sure that Covanta’s contract is not renewed in 2022. One way they are doing that is boycotting Ocean City, Maryland, which sends trash all the way to Chester to be burned.

Get daily updates from WHYY News!

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal