Delaware County Solid Waste Authority approves contract with controversial incineration company

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)

Got a question about life in Philly’s suburbs? Our suburban reporters want to hear from you! Ask us a question or send an idea for a story you think we should cover.

Just two months after the city of Chester extended its own contract with Covanta Holding Corp. for another three years, Delaware County has also approved a three-year contract with the controversial waste incineration company.

“If you don’t deal with the health issues first, and the health ramifications of this thing, then it should be a full stop on everything. Everything,” said Zulene Mayfield, who chairs the group Chester Residents Concerned for Quality Living which opposes the facility.

Delco’s trash is handled by the Delaware County Solid Waste Authority, an independent body whose members are appointed by the County Council. Waste from the authority accounts for 30% of the total trash burned in a given year at Chester-based Delaware Valley Resource Recovery Center.

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

The company burns roughly 3,500 tons of trash per day as it also receives waste from Philadelphia, New York, and beyond. The DCSWA’s contract with Covanta was set to expire this month.

Because a plurality of the trash burned at the facility comes from Delco, community members opposed to the incinerator being in the predominantly Black city of Chester saw this as a major opportunity to oust the company, cited in a 2019 study as one of the largest polluters of its kind in the country.

Despite a change in leadership in recent months, the Delaware County Solid Waste Authority voted 6-1 Wednesday in favor of maintaining a relationship with the company at the center of environmental justice concerns.

Mayfield said the process was plagued with transparency issues.

“We’re not pleased with it. But one thing’s for sure, Chester Residents Concerned for Quality Living is not going anywhere. We are going to not stop. We don’t view this as a setback — its justice delayed. And we will continue to demand what is humanly right, which is the right to breathe,” Mayfield said.

While Jim Warner, DCSWA’s interim chief executive officer, tipped his hand in February to WHYY News that the authority would be facing an uphill battle finding a new partner to take on the county’s waste, some were hopeful for change.

But, the county will remain a paying customer.

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

Warner did not respond to a request for comment on the latest vote approving the new contract.

Delco Councilmember Christine Reuther is no longer a voting member of the authority as she now serves as a liaison between the two bodies.

However, she said when she was a voting member briefly before transitioning to the new role, she realized that the previous leadership of the authority allowed the county’s waste management infrastructure to degrade.

“There simply isn’t the ability to move all the waste generated in the county through our transfer stations right now, nor is there the ability to put sufficient vehicles in place to transfer that waste,” Reuther said.

She believes that this contract is “different,” because unlike previous contracts, the county doesn’t get penalized for reducing the amount of trash it sends to the Covanta facility.

Reuther said it allows the county to balance the current limitations of its own authority in dire need of investments while also leaving the door open for a non-incineration option down the line.

“The big thing is that it’s not a long-term contract, and there’s no minimum delivery requirements. So, should the authority put itself in a position to reduce waste through recycling programs, or by diverting trash to some landfill or another landfill — it can do so and it doesn’t have any residual obligations to prevent it,” Reuther said.

She said that she appreciated the fact that some of the community members present at the meeting were acknowledging that the contract is an improvement over the previous predicament.

“I do believe that there’s an acknowledgement of the fact that that there’s been progress made, it’s not 100% of what they want. And it won’t be unless and until Covanta shuts down. That is a decision that is outside of the scope of either the Solid Waste Authority or County Council or anybody else that anybody but the DEP [Department of Environmental Protection] because it’s a private business,” Reuther said.

‘Chester is one of worst cases of environmental racism in the country’

But for Will Jones, the lone “no” vote against the Covanta contract, this issue has been a top priority for him — which is why he believes that the authority had the obligation to try harder to find another way to deal with trash.

“I believe that the sense of urgency isn’t there, in my estimation, to go the extra mile to find alternative motives as fast as possible. I believe, is generally trending in that direction. But ‘generally trending’ isn’t good enough when people’s lives are being affected the way they are,” Jones said.

Jones was born and raised in Chester. He is also a member of CRCQL. He was appointed to the DCSWA in February, bringing Chester representation to the board.

“From all over, almost, the country, people are sending their trash for Chester residents … to breathe, and for them to live in, and for them to smell, and be embarrassed, and degraded,” Jones said.

He said some people are acting as if the incinerator is new and that they just became aware of it.

“You can’t move that slow. I understand that you have to be practical and calculating and all of that. But at the same time you have to walk and chew gum in this situation, because people’s health is affected in this kind of way. But you don’t have the time to slowly, methodically formulate a plan,” Jones said.

He added that it feels “disrespectful” to not be listened to, so he’s hoping that people hold their officials accountable — himself included.

“Chester is one of the worst cases of environmental racism in the country,” Jones said.

Mayfield recalls Delco Council’s response to Marple Township residents after members of their community were in an uproar about potential development on the sprawling, forested Don Guanella property. County Council decided to seize the property through eminent domain to protect it.

She wonders why that same sense of urgency was not afforded to Chester residents. Mayfield said that pollution costs people their lives. To her, any insinuation that she and her neighbors should be “dancing in the street” about the contract is absurd. Speaking in metaphorical terms, she chastised county officials for not finding another way to deal with waste:

“You stabbed me. I’m bleeding. You give me a band-aid and I should be grateful you gave me the band-aids? But you’re continuing to stab me?”

While the city of Chester has extended its contract, the state-appointed receiver for the municipality will look to renegotiate some of the terms.

Get the WHYY app!

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