A few weeks ago, someone sent me an email asking if I was aware of the opposition that the Chester Mayor & Council are mounting to the passage of resolutions by Delco municipalities against the Covanta incinerator? 

What they were referring to is how the Delaware County Solid Waste Authority will be engaging in a new contract with Covanta most likely in May 2021 and potentially locking the entire county into a 10-year contract with the incinerator, which will continue to wreak havoc on the health of the Chester community and beyond, as well as undermine recycling and waste reduction efforts. 

If you didn’t already know, the Delaware County Solid Waste Authority represents every town in Delaware County regarding their trash. All of Delco’s trash comes to Chester to be burned in the Covanta incinerator, commonly called the trash-to-steam plant, on the beautiful Delaware River. Delco trash is about 1/3 of the total trash load Covanta burns.

I wasn’t aware of the current opposition that the Chester Mayor & Council are mounting to the passage of resolutions by Delco municipalities against the Covanta incinerator but I was aware of the letter sent by Chester’s Mayor to Philadelphia’s City Council in June 2019 urging them to renew Philadelphia’s contract to continue bringing Philly’s trash to Chester. 

The points Mayor Kirkland made in that letter are the familiar tropes he and Chester City Council are now spreading around Delaware County municipalities who are considering their options with regard to how the county handles their trash. For example, the email to me read…

I spoke with Nafis Nichols, CFO of Chester City about Covanta. He recently spoke with Mayor Kirkland about how some municipalities are considering resolutions and he wanted to share the following:

  • Chester has been monitoring Covanta closely and feels that they are doing what they need to do, according to environmental laws/regulations
  • Chester City is in dire financial straits and Covanta provides significant revenue to the city
  • Chester Council is in the process of putting together a marketing piece of why they are in support of Covanta
  • Chester Council will mention a generic statement of support during their upcoming meeting on Wednesday
  • They plan to send official documentation of their stance to the municipalities that are considering resolutions

As word got around the county on Chester City government’s position in support of Delco continuing to bring their trash to Chester, one of the first to react was the environmental justice community. 

Mike Ewall of Energy Justice Network wrote that there is a serious conflict of interest the city has on the matter, not to mention balancing this against the bigger picture of far more costly health impacts on the entire region. Chester Residents Concerned for Quality Living (CRCQL) issued a BAN THE BURN petitionfor Chester and Delaware County. The petition can be signed by organizations and individuals. Click here to read the letter and sign!

On Monday night, Swarthmore Borough was the first Delco municipality to pass a Zero Waste resolution at their council meeting which states it does not want the county to renew a contract with Covanta trash incinerator. They also reached Chester’s Mayor who reiterated Chester City government’s support for Delco bringing all their trash to Chester to burn, but the Swarthmore Borough Council unanimously voted otherwise (there was one abstention so officially the vote wasn’t unanimous, but it seemed like one). Although seen as a symbolic gesture, Swarthmore made it clear to the rest of the county that they are not scared to step out on behalf of health and safety of Chester residents especially when alternatives exist that makes the Chester incinerator an option, not a necessity.

Here’s some of the passages in the Swarthmore resolution:

  • Chester City has a 69% Black population within the 69% White Delaware County, and it is a result of environmental racism that the citizens of Chester City endure disproportionate cumulative effects of pollution from multiple industries
  • the childhood asthma hospitalization rate in Delaware County is 22% above the state average, and the rate in Chester City is nearly three times the state average. Childhood asthma rates in Chester are five times the national average
  • Swarthmore Borough requests that the new Delaware County health department, when established, assess the noise pollution and air quality in neighborhoods around the incinerator and make actionable recommendations to improve public health.
  • Swarthmore Borough requests Delaware County Council to ensure that the Delaware County Solid Waste Authority does not extend the Service Agreement with Covanta Delaware Valley when the option is presented to them by Covanta as early as May 1, 2021

Chester City government’s argument to keeping trash incineration going in Chester is totally based on money to the city budget. Ironically, the city is set to receive up to $30 million real soon in stimulus money from the federal government. Imagine if that could be used to offset the $5 million annual contribution Covanta provides to the city. I’m sure, within 6-years, Delco’s trash could be sent somewhere other than Chester. Of course, that scenario isn’t likely, but it sure sounds nice. 

Realistically, Mike Ewall of Energy Justice Network proposes that, “We need to start talking to the county about how to make Chester whole. Chester (or the receiver) is expecting $4.6 million in Covanta host fees this year. Delco, if they pulled out, would be pulling about $1,334,000 away from Chester City’s budget in the process. The county could make up for this by agreeing to pay an extra $3.76/ton to support Chester’s budgetary loss. That’s well within the margin of waste disposal prices that typically range from $50-90/ton in the region.

“If the county’s smart, instead of putting that into Chester’s budget to do just anything, they’d build zero waste infrastructure in Chester to employ people, and make it a profitable enterprise that returns profits to the city. Getting any major pieces of the zero waste picture in place would save the county far more money on disposal costs, anyway.

“We should start talking up this idea among county council to short circuit any scaremongering about Chester City’s budget. I bet the county can afford to do both, actually… pay a bit more to just close the city’s budget gap AND invest in zero waste infrastructure to reduce waste county-wide, preserving landfill space, creating jobs, and saving money.”

Obviously, we have to start collaborating with experts in the field of trash to prevent it from continuing to come to Chester. It’s becoming clear the towns around Chester care enough for the health and safety of Chester residents that they are starting to put pressure on the county to consider alternatives and stop going with the status quo everyone has been following since 1992. 

Environmental racism is a scourge on Delaware County and a death sentence on Chester residents. Is that worth $5 million a year? You decide because Swarthmore already did.