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

Swing Dance – It’s a Protest: The story of swing dance and its radical beginnings.

Swing dance: think Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holliday, 20’s Charleston, 40’s big band, 50’s rockabilly. Maybe you’ve never heard of it, maybe you’ve done a bit of it, maybe you’ve seen it in a movie, maybe you’ve gone to one or two ETHELS meetings (Eastern’s Toe-tappin Heel-stompin East Coast Lindy Hoppin Swing Club). Many people today think it’s this old kind of dancing that’s from an oppressive era that no one under the age of 60 does anymore. 

Did swing dance get its start in an oppressive era? Yes, in fact, but it was a bug, not a feature, of that oppression. Let me explain. Swing dance was created and developed by Black Americans during the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s, building on many aspects of African-American dance, alongside their development of jazz and blues music. The 1920s, of course, were during the Jim Crow era–during segregation. Hence swing dance’s start in an oppressive era. However, the Harlem Renaissance in all of its facets and glory was progressive–it birthed Black American art so popular that even mainstream art today has appropriated its styles, it saw significant economic and class mobility among many Black Americans–and all of this progress occurred in spite of the racial segregation and disenfranchisement of the era. Swing dance, and its music, was a part of that progress. Live jazz music or big band music with a wooden floor in front of the stage for dancing was cheap, accessible leisure, even moving into the Great Depression of the 30’s and wartime of the 40’s. Furthermore, spaces for swing dance were some of the few places where Black and white people of opposite genders could (relatively) freely and openly interact and touch. This is an incredibly important note, because the era of segregation harbored nasty, politicized hatred of multiracial relationships. Historically, swing dance has roots in the progressivism of its day, artistically, economically, and racially. 

Today, if you find yourself in front of live jazz or rockabilly music with a dance floor, the majority of swing dancers will probably be white. This is partially due to white Americans’ appropriation of successful and popular Black art, and partially due to the fact that the progressive Black music and dancing of our day is in other genres: rap, hip hop, etc. However, if you look closely at today’s swing dance, you’ll also see something relatively new: gender progressivism. Swing dance’s boom was just after the 19th amendment was passed (giving white women the right to vote), its heyday was decades before Black women were enfranchised, and the country was deep in the throes of heterosexist patriarchy, in Black communities and in white. But now, if you go to a swing dance venue or maybe an ETHELS meeting, you can see two men dancing together, two women dancing together, and even women leading men. During lessons, you’ll hear less of “Ladies, over here, gents, over here,” and more “If you’re learning to lead, over here, if you want to learn how to follow, come here.” 

Swing dance (with its many forms, including Lindy Hop and jitterbug) is still alive and well today. A not-insignificant number of young people enjoy swing dance, and there’s even international competitions and conferences for swing dance that are mostly attended by millennials and older Gen Z’ers. Its inextricable connection with Black American progressivism from the Jim Crow era cannot be forgotten by white dancers, and it is a home for expressions of gender progressivism today.

Sources: Sinead McGrath for Medium; Nicole M Baran for Bitter Southerner, Saint Savoy Ballroom, Camp Hollywood