‘We are still on the battlefield’: Chester residents rally over Delco contract with controversial trash incinerator company

Over 100 people gathered for the rally in the City of Chester in response to the county's new contract with Covanta. (Emily Rizzo/WHYY)

Over 100 people gathered for the rally in the City of Chester in response to the county's new contract with Covanta. (Emily Rizzo/WHYY)

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Over 100 people rallied in the City of Chester on Saturday afternoon in response to Delaware County and the City of Chester extending their contracts with the Covanta Holding Corporation for another three years. Covanta owns the trash incinerator in Chester, one of the largest polluters of its kind in the country, according to a 2019 study from the New School.

The crowd was led by drumplayers and equipped with signs marked “Let Chester Breathe,” “People over Profits,” and “Shame Covanta.” The protestors marched down Pennsylvania Route 291 from Chester City Hall to the incinerator.

Over 100 people gathered for the rally in the City of Chester in response to the county's new contract with Covanta. (Emily Rizzo/WHYY)
Over 100 people gathered for the rally in the City of Chester in response to the county’s new contract with Covanta. (Emily Rizzo/WHYY)

The Delaware County Solid Waste Authority, an independent body whose members are appointed by the County Council, voted 6-1 on Wednesday, April 13, in approval of a three-year contract with Covanta.

Rally attendees, made up of Chester residents, local university students, and neighbors from Philadelphia and nearby Delco municipalities, said they were disappointed and saddened by the decision.

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They were also energized to continue to mount more pressure on county and city officials.

Mural Arts’ Trash Academy representatives attended the rally. They told a story with their costumes. (Emily Rizzo/WHYY)

Tishiema Lacy has lived in Chester for over 26 years. She said she wants more transparency and accountability from city leaders.

“Let us know exactly what deals you’re making, what you’re doing,” Lacy said. “How is it affecting the residents here in the city? How is it benefiting us?”

Tishiema Lacy, Chester resident for over 26 years, said she wants more transparency from local leaders. (Emily Rizzo/WHYY)
Tishiema Lacy, Chester resident for over 26 years, said she wants more transparency from local leaders. (Emily Rizzo/WHYY)

The waste-to-energy Delaware Valley Resource Recovery Facility incinerates about 3,500 tons of trash per day. The New School report found that the facility emits more particulate matter (PM) than any other similar facility in the country. In an interview with WHYY, one of the New School researchers, Adrienne Perovich, who is also the assistant director at the Tishman Environment Design Center, said PM contributes to heart disease, lung disease, and asthma. A Harvard study also shows that increased exposure to this pollutant increases risk of death from COVID-19.

Chester residents say the incinerator’s placement, in a city that is nearly 70% Black, is an effect of environmental racism. Chester is also one of the poorest communities in Pennsylvania.

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Residents have fought against the incinerator’s existence since it arrived in the City of Chester in 1991.

In the early ‘90s, Margaret Brown’s mother, Gloria Brown, stood side by side with Zulene Mayfield, who chairs the group Chester Residents Concerned for Quality Living, in the middle of route 291 to block the company’s trucks from entering the facility.

Gloria later passed away from lung cancer, said Brown, who attended Saturday’s march. Brown still lives on Route 291, three blocks from the incinerator.

“I’m still fighting for my mother, because she always said, ‘This is for my children and my grandchildren,’” Brown said.

Margaret Brown, City of Chester resident, said she is fighting for clean air in honor of her mother, Gloria, who died from lung cancer. (Emily Rizzo/WHYY)
Margaret Brown, City of Chester resident, said she is fighting for clean air in honor of her mother, Gloria, who died from lung cancer. (Emily Rizzo/WHYY)

Brown said her lungs are often inflamed and have nodules. She said after an hour of waking up in the morning, she’s puffing for air. When she blows her nostrils in the morning, she sees black mucus.

“I don’t even sit outside anymore, because it’s very hard [to breathe],” Brown said.

Her children and her grandchildren all have asthma.

“This is just hard to see what they have done here in Chester … They took people’s livelihoods and homes from them, and that was just so very unfair,” said Brown. “I’m going to keep fighting until it’s out of here, or it’s 100% clean air.”

While rally attendees were gathering on Saturday, one Chester employee was standing at the City Hall parking lot entrance, across the street from the rally’s starting point. He yelled at an attendee, ​​”You don’t even live here!”

That comment was directed toward Echo Alford, 36, who said that she has lived within five miles of the incinerator her whole life.

“This is my community. I do care about this situation. I’m not an outside agitator,” Alford said. “This is people who live in this community who have the right to breathe fresh air and are being denied that right for profits for this city.”

Echo Alford, City of Chester resident, said the city is priorizing profits over people. (Emily Rizzo/WHYY)
Echo Alford, City of Chester resident, said the city is priorizing profits over people. (Emily Rizzo/WHYY)

One of the rally organizers, Mayfield, has been fighting against the incinerator for 30 years. She said it was important to gather community members after the authority’s decision, in order to show that residents will not be letting up.

“We are marching,” said Mayfield, “to show them, yeah, we’re still on the battlefield. We’re not going away. We’re not scared. You can’t intimidate us. You can’t frighten us. You can’t bully us. We’re still here.”

She added that she is grateful that the new Covanta contract has more flexibility than ever before.

Jim Mclaughlin, chair of the Delaware County Solid Waste Authority, said it’s the first time in the “history of the authority,” that “we now have the flexibility to determine how much waste from the county is being sent to Covanta, to the incinerator or to a landfill, wherever we’re able to find essentially the best deal for the county.”

In previous contracts, the DCSWA was required to deliver a minimum amount of waste, and if they didn’t meet that requirement, there was a fee paid to Covanta.

Nearby resident, Michael Hurst, came across the rally and stood in solidarity. (Emily Rizzo/WHYY)
Nearby resident, Michael Hurst, came across the rally and stood in solidarity. (Emily Rizzo/WHYY)

Moving forward, McLaughlin said the authority is looking toward using more environmentally- friendly waste management systems.

“We are looking, right now, at understanding the financial impacts, the operational impacts,” McLaughlin said.

Chantal Reyes, a senior at Swarthmore College in Delaware County, is a lead organizer with Campus Coalition Concerning Chester, the student arm of Chester Residents Concerned for Quality Living. Reyes said this flexibility is like a “political window.”

“We should continue putting more pressure and continue doing what we’re doing, because we have the ability to stop them from continuing this contract,” Reyes said.

Local university students, members of the Campus Coalition Concerning Chester, gathered for the Saturday rally. (Emily Rizzo/WHYY)
Local university students, members of the Campus Coalition Concerning Chester, gathered for the Saturday rally. (Emily Rizzo/WHYY)

Rally organizers were handing flyers out to residents as they walked down Route 291.

Ruth Moten, who is running for state representative for the 159th district of Upper Chichester in Delaware County, said, if anything, she hopes that the rally will spread awareness about the impacts of the incinerator on residents’ health.

Moten has nodules on her lungs, which she said is caused by environmental pollution. Her daughter and her grandchildren moved out of the City of Chester after her grandchildren were suffering from ongoing ear infections.

Moten said she was glad to see folks gathering from all over the Philadelphia region for the rally.

“Who can really control where the airflow is going to be? The wind shifts. It goes in any direction. All of us are affected. And even if I did live far, far away, what affects one … I mean, come on, we all should care about it.”

Protestors held signs like ''Shame Covanta'' as they marched from Chester City Hall to the Covanta incinerator along Pennsylvania Route 291. (Emily Rizzo/WHYY)
Protestors held signs like ”Shame Covanta” as they marched from Chester City Hall to the Covanta incinerator along Pennsylvania Route 291. (Emily Rizzo/WHYY)

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