Public pressure mounts against Chester incinerator as environmental racism claims pile up

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)

Residents in the city of Chester see a window of opportunity to force Delaware County officials to cancel a contract with a controversial waste incineration company, or have the facility face stronger state regulations.

Covanta Holding Corporation operates the waste-to-energy incinerator in Chester, which was cited in a 2019 study as one of the largest polluters of its kind in the country. The plant incinerates trash from Delaware County, as well as Philadelphia, New York, New Jersey, and Ocean City, Maryland.

Many community members view its fixture in the predominantly Black city as a symbol of environmental racism and take the rare chances they get to voice their concerns seriously.

“We’ve been considering it for far too long. It’s time for action,” said Chester resident Will Jones, testifying before Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection officials. “This isn’t going away, you’re not going to be able to hide under obscurity and bureaucracy anymore, and history will judge.”

Jones’ comments came at a DEP virtual public hearing on Wednesday regarding a permit renewal request Covanta is seeking with state officials.

A Title V operating permit is required under the Federal Clean Air Act for any large source of air pollution. It is supposed to cover regulatory requirements for air emissions at a facility that surpasses emission thresholds.

Covanta submitted its application in December 2020. The department began reviewing the application in February 2021, a process overseen by the Environmental Protection Agency.

The incinerator has been in Chester since 1992 and residents have criticized its presence since its inception.

In addition to the DEP permitting process, opponents see an opportunity to reduce pollution at the plant by pressuring county officials to reject Covanta’s attempt to renew a contract that ends on April 30.

The county’s Solid Waste Authority — with some members appointed by former Republican-held county governments — will decide the fate of the contract renewal.

The next public hearing on solid waste management in the county is planned for 6 p.m. on Sept. 30, when a representative from Covanta will be among the panelists.

‘Not fair to this community’

At Wednesday’s virtual permit hearing before DEP, public commenters did not pull punches criticizing Covanta.

Nearly two dozen people registered as speakers for the two hour hearing that was accessible via phone and the internet. Various townships, boroughs, and municipalities across Delaware County were well represented.

Speakers were given three minutes to state their opinion with the DEP.

Mike Ewall, founder and executive director of the Energy Justice Network, believes the company is not being properly regulated for harsh pollutants. Smokestacks are monitored daily for four specific pollutants, but others are not checked by regulators nearly as often.

“That is not appropriate way to monitor what’s really coming out of the stack of these facilities, and the technology exists to continuously monitor over 50 different pollutants including many different metals, particulate matter, other acid gases dioxins and furans, and more,” said Ewall, who has been sparring with Covanta since 1994.

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

He likened the existing regulation to allowing people to drive all year on the road with no speedometer or rules except on one day.

Ewall wants DEP to require Covanta to continuously monitor its output of particulate matter pollution and other emissions.

WHYY News reached out to Covanta for a response and Nicolle Robles, a spokesperson for the company attributed the near unanimous criticism that it received to artificial uproar and scare tactics.

“Covanta is a strong advocate of public discourse and believes it is important residents be part of any dialogue concerning their community. It’s unfortunate that a special interest group has commandeered many of these public hearings with a script that serves only to fear monger,” Robles said.

Erica Berman, of Media, who works in Chester at the Delaware County Historical Society, doesn’t accept that.

“Studying the history of Chester, I’ve learned the depth of corruption and systemic racism that allowed for the waterfront to be transformed into a hub of industry pollution and waste.” She says it was not an accident that the nation’s biggest incinerator landed in the middle of a low-income Black and brown community.

She believes that allowing the incinerator to continue to operate perpetuates a cycle of racism. She and others on the call cited Chester’s high rate of asthma among residents as evidence of the lifelong harm being done.

Eric Everbach, of Delco, reiterated concerns regarding asthma rates and particulate matter pollution.

“I also would like to point out that because of the COVID-19 epidemic. There’s an established correlation between lung damage due to particulate matter and difficulty recovering from COVID-19. So, we are still in the COVID-19 epidemic pandemic, and the incinerator is still putting out large amounts of particulates. This is something that needs to be taken into account in the decision to which I recommend not renewing the DEP permit,” Everbach said

Meg Lemieur, of Philadelphia, said that she grew up in Delaware County, and hates that her garbage is negatively affecting Chester residents.

“I’m standing in solidarity with Chester because my personal trash has been polluting their environment beyond my control, but it’s not beyond your control,” Lamuir said, with comments pointed at DEP officials.

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

Gregory Trader of Upper Chichester said despite living several miles southwest of the incinerator, he still palpably feels the impact.

“On a day when the wind is blowing in this direction our air quality is horrible. I am an African American who also has respiratory issues — and that affects me. And I’d like to see something done about that,” Trader said.

Towards the end of the meeting, listeners heard from Zulene Mayfield. She chairs the group Chester Residents Concerned for Quality Living. The group coalesced to oppose the facility quickly after it opened.

Mayfield framed her appeal by focusing on the facility’s age and its subsequently aging infrastructure.

“You are not protecting and we are not getting equal protection from the DEP in the Chester community, and that in itself is environmental racism,” said Mayfield, who believes the state is in violation of federal law. “That is not fair to this community.”

It is unclear when DEP will make its decision on the permit application, which either side could then appeal.

State officials are still accepting public comment on the matter through Monday, Oct. 4.

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