Why Should Chester Be Our Trash Can?

Written By Sue Edwards

This article was originally published in the Swarthmorean. It has been republished here with the author’s permission.

Longtime Chester activist Zulene Mayfield threw down a gauntlet at a meeting in the social room of Trinity Church Swarthmore on the evening of February 27. Addressing about 70 members of Moving the Needle, a progressive change organization modeled after the Indivisible movement, Mayfield challenged the audience to collaborate with Chester residents in changing the waste disposal system. She confronted the audience by saying: ”For 20 years have sat by in comfort,” but that when you flush a toilet or put something in the trash, it comes to Chester–including tires, medical waste, pet waste, and more, some of it leaking or falling from shipping containers and exposing children who encounter it.

Mayfield is now reinvigorating the organization she founded in 1990, Chester Residents Concerned for Quality Living (CRCQL), and taking particular aim at the largest incinerator in the United States: the Delaware Valley Resource Recovery Facility, operated by the Covanta Corporation, is in Chester. She asserted that fallout from Covanta’s stacks spreads out in a 17 mile radius, so “How dare you sit back and think you don’t have a dog in this fight?” She told her listeners that right now Philadelphia has a Request for Proposals for its recyclables, which may well end up in Chester along with its trash. Increasing volume would likely add jobs, but Mayfield declared: “We don’t need the jobs; they’re dangerous and low-paying.” In any case, she asserted, only 20 of the 100 jobs at the plant are held by Chester residents, despite a legal requirement of 75%.

Mayfield’s talk was preceded by a slide presentation by Mike Ewall, founder and director of the Energy Justice Network (www.energyjustice.net), who has spent the last 25 years helping communities (including Chester) protect themselves from polluting energy and waste technology. He displayed a chart of dozens of places where there have been successful campaigns against trash incinerators. Regarding the siting of these, he contended that “It’s not about class, it’s race,”  and that asthma rates (40%) among Chester’s children are triple the national average. He explained that 1.5% of the waste burned in the Chester plant is from Chester, but 29% comes from Delaware County, 28% is from Philadelphia and 22% from New York. While it is touted as a clean process for producing energy from trash, he said that Covanta lacks significant controls, such as for nitrogen oxides (which contribute to asthma), mercury, and dioxin. He said that similar plants have up to five different controls, but Covanta has only two. According to Ewall, data show that incinerators are more harmful than coal or landfills, and their ash–which he described as far more toxic than unburned waste–ends up at landfills in any case.

Ewall concluded that Delaware County government needs to stop our waste from going to Covanta, and to insist on no new incinerators. Mayfield invited everyone to join CRCQL in actions around the Philadelphia area. She feels that if people unite, Covanta can be stopped, economics or not.  

Earlier in the program, Tom Fogel of the nonprofit group PennEnvironment spoke. While their approach is very different than CRCQL’s, he also made it clear that rapid action is called for. He warned that the climate in Pennsylvania is likely to feel like Virginia by mid-century, and that the entire northeast will see the most dramatic climate effects of any region in the country. He said that Pennsylvania’s carbon emissions trail only California and Texas, which have lower per capita emissions. On the hopeful side, Fogel told the group about bills – sponsored by Rep. Chris Rabb and Sen. Tom Killion and co-sponsored by 26% of the legislature including Sen. Tim Kearney – which would require all buildings in the state to be powered by renewable electricity by 2035 and the entire power grid to be renewable by 2050. Sen. Kearney, in the audience, added that groups of legislators in both the PA House and Senate are working on a pragmatic Pennsylvania version of the federal “Green New Deal” that could potentially pass. Fogel urged his audience to take part in Penn Environment’s annual Lobby Day on June 19 by riding one of their free buses to Harrisburg .

The meeting ended with Jayatri Das from the host organization, Moving the Needle, urging people to write to Brian Zidek and Kevin Madden the two Democratic members of County Council, asking them to vote to end the contract with Covanta when it comes up for renewal. While one audience member observed that some attendees seemed to be uncomfortable at the challenges presented, resident Allen Prindle said, “The program helped those in attendance, including many young people, see the urgency of these issues.”