Environmental Racism in Our Country: The problem of waster incineration in Delaware County and what we can do about it.

In 1992, a waste incineration site was built in the city of Chester, PA, in Delaware County: the Delaware Valley Resource Recovery Facility. Since 2005, Covanta Holding Corporation has owned and operated it. According to Census.gov, 68.9% of Chester residents are Black or African-American, 11.6% of residents are of Hispanic or Latino descent, white residents make up most of the remaining approximate 20% and other races report less than 1%. This means that 80.5% of residents are Black and Brown people of color and are suffering from health issues and low-income difficulties as a result of this incineration site. This number easily justifies calling this what it is—racism. 

As PBS Nova found in 2017, “a third of [Chester] residents live below the poverty line,” with “one of the poorest public education systems in Pennsylvania and some of the state’s highest rates of gun violence.” Chester used to be a thriving hub for manufacturing and business and prospered before World War 2. But half of its residents fled the city for the wealthier, whiter suburbs between 1950 and 1980 (a phenomenon called “white flight”), leaving residents of color to disproportionately bear the invisible costs of the new municipal waste incinerator a decade later and housing value depreciation and underfunded public necessities in the meantime and throughout. Nova also found that Chester residents only created 1.6% of the waste that is incinerated at the facility; the entirety of the rest comes from Philadelphia, Ocean City, New Jersey, New York City—and Delaware County. Our county.

But what is waste incineration, and why is it bad? According to the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, an organization democratizing waste disposal and dismantling waste corporations, it’s a process by which solid waste is burned in order to produce energy, usually electricity, that’s sold back to the power grid. Incineration creates nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide and tiny “particulate matter,” according to epidemiologist Tamarra James-Todd of Harvard University. This particulate matter causes respiratory and cardiovascular complications. It can lead to “premature death in people with heart or lung disease, irregular heartbeats, aggravated asthma, and decreased lung function,” says a doctor from UPenn. In 1995, three years after the site was opened, 60% of children in Chester were found to have concentrations of lead in their blood higher than what’s deemed healthy by the CDC; 38.5% of Chester children and 25% of adults have asthma; residents are significantly more likely to develop lung or ovarian cancer or suffer a stroke or heart disease “than other Delaware county residents,” PBS Nova found. ILSR reports that there are 76 incineration facilities across the country, and in spite of wasting more energy than it produces, 23 states list incineration as a renewable resource, including Pennsylvania. And this incineration plant owned by Covanta is the largest in the country, burning over 3500 tons of waste per day, according to Chester Residents Concerned for Quality Living (CRCQL). Nova also reported that Covanta lacked important pollutant control systems. In an NPR interview, Covanta said that “this facility operates 96% below federally regulated emission standards.” But this is why community members are angry—federal regulations are insufficient and favor big companies over people’s lives, says CRCQL.

So what can we do to combat this environmental racism? Most importantly, we can support Zulene Mayfield (community organizer) and her decades-old organization, CRCQL. Mayfield has been protesting and organizing against environmental racism in her community for years. Donate or sign a petition on their website, and follow and share them on social media. Additionally, when it’s time for us to vote, we can be sure to vote in our local elections, and we can refuse to vote for candidates of any party that receive corporate PAC money. We can invest in alternatives for our common waste products: metal straws, reusable water bottles, tote bags for groceries, etc, so that we send less waste to Chester.

In April of 2022, Covanta’s contract with the city of Chester is up—and that’s our chance to help make sure it’s not renewed. This is a multimillion-dollar company that’s a corporate PAC (political action committee) that donates to candidates on both sides of the aisle (Opensecrets.org). It’s caused irreparable economic and medical harm to the residents of Chester, especially to people of color. It’s one of the most serious sources of air pollution in our community. And it needs to end. 

Sources: PBS Nova, WHYY NPR, Institute for Local Self-Reliance, Chester Residents Concerned for Quality Living,  opensecrets.org, census.gov