Twin crises of flooding and COVID still hamper trash collection in Upper Darby

Flood damage from Tropical Storm Isaias and piles of garbage that have gone uncollected for days or weeks as Upper Darby scrambles to deal with twin crises of a weather disaster and coronavirus cluster among sanitation workers. (Photos via Chuck Nguyen)

Flood damage from Tropical Storm Isaias and piles of garbage that have gone uncollected for days or weeks as Upper Darby scrambles to deal with twin crises of a weather disaster and coronavirus cluster among sanitation workers. (Photos via Chuck Nguyen)

Molding carpet. Water-logged couches. Rumors of pests. Weeks’ worth of garbage bags piled on top of one another, rotting in the humidity and heat.

This is what some Upper Darby residents say has become an unmanageable local mess of delayed trash collection now stretching into a third week. And even though many recognize the exceptional challenges elected officials are trying to navigate, some say the response has been so mismanaged they want local leaders to resign.

“Trash-wise, it’s a disaster, the whole neighborhood stinks,” said Tina Pasciolla Hamilton, a Drexel Hill resident who works with an addiction recovery organization.

She and others are planning a demonstration ahead of a Township Council meeting Wednesday evening. The aim is to draw attention to what they see as Mayor Barbarann Keffer’s administration mishandling the situation. Hamilton wants Keffer to resign from office, along with her chief administrative officer, Vincent Rongione, and Council President Laura Wentz.

“We have no cooperation within this government,” Hamilton said, faulting the administration for not being more transparent about the scale of the problem it has on its hands.

Upper Darby’s trash issue stems from two separate crises that are exacerbating each other. On Aug. 4, the township was severely flooded by Tropical Storm Isaias. Homes were damaged, roads submerged, debris scattered in alleys and yards. Residents like Jim Burrows, a local business owner, put water-soaked boxes, carpeting, couches, and mattresses out for collection.

Flood damage from Tropical Storm Isaias and piles of garbage that have gone uncollected for days or weeks as Upper Darby scrambles to deal with twin crises of a weather disaster and coronavirus cluster among sanitation workers. (Photo by Chuck Nguyen)

“I was putting out furniture that got flooded in my basement,” Burrows said of the days following the flooding.

But not long after, on Aug. 6, Keffer announced an “outbreak in the Sanitation Division” of positive COVID-19 cases. Following state and federal guidance, more than 60 sanitation staffers were told to quarantine for two weeks.

According to Rongione, that step was taken out of an abundance of caution. Just five to 10 of the sanitation workers tested positive, he said, but because of how crews operate on collection routes, officials couldn’t definitively say who had or had not been exposed.

“What really ended up impacting us was the contact tracing,” Rongione said. “It wasn’t so much that there was a massive outbreak and everybody tested positive. It was that when different people are working on different trucks on different days with different crew members, the contact-tracing web becomes sort of crippling to the department.”

But with trash collectors waylaid, and an exceptional amount of flood-damaged refuse piled beside the normal weekly volume in warm, wet weather, the problems compounded. The township has tried to activate more resources, contracting with private hauling companies and using school bus drivers to operate vehicles. They also have put out a few dumpsters, with limited hours for residents to drop off household trash, though bulk items are prohibited.

“It’s kind of just all hands on deck to get us caught up on the trash situation,” Rongione said.

The stop-gap measures have their own challenges, though. For one thing, collections are taking longer as relatively inexperienced drivers learn to move through narrow alleys and navigate new routes. The township has focused on household trash but not recycling, leaving items behind even after collections take place. Because of the timing of the twin crises, residents on a few routes were skipped over multiple times, leaving some with close to three weeks of garbage.

“It wasn’t any kind of malice or incompetence,” Rongione said of the longest delays. “It was a freak coincidence of when the flood happened and when the quarantine started.”

For critics of the administration, though, such oversights are inexcusable.

“They are in over their heads,” Burrows said. He thinks the township should have reached out to the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency for more help. “We’re in a natural disaster, followed by a crisis.”

He also wishes the administration would allow residents to play a more active role in the cleanup, putting out more dumpsters for volunteers to haul debris away themselves.

“We can mitigate this as a community,” Burrows said. “I just want to get the trash out of here.”

Other critics are dismayed there was not a contingency plan in place for sanitation workers testing positive for the virus. Chuck Nguyen has lived in the township for 27 years and administers a Facebook page for residents with more than 5,000 members.

“They didn’t have any plan, their plan was just, ‘Well, sit on the trash for two weeks,’” Nguyen said.

For days, the Facebook page has been filled with comments complaining about uncollected refuse, vitriol towards the administration, and some people gratefully reporting when crews have come by.

Nguyen, as well as Burrows and Hamilton, do not believe the administration has been sufficiently transparent or organized relaying information to residents, who are tired of dealing with piles of trash beside homes and businesses.

Rongione said that with the quarantine nearly over for the township’s sanitation workers, normal route collections will resume Monday, Aug. 24.

“We know it’s been difficult on residents, and we appreciate their patience,” Rongione said.

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