Back in February 2021, my little campaign team argued over which are the most important issues facing Chester residents. The normal hot buttons are trash collection, litter, and crime. We realized the bigger issues facing Chester are Covanta and receivership. Having nothing to lose, we campaigned on erasing environmental racism and fixing the city’s finances to the chagrin of a few on our team who though it was an uphill battle to get residents excited about those issues. 

What a difference a few months can make. Even though trash collection and crime dominate the day-to-day conversation around town, we’ve done an amazing job raising the awareness of Chester’s environmental struggles by partnering with the environmental justice advocates who have been fighting this fight for decades. We’ve also helped many understand the complexities of receivership and the role of our receiver and his team as they trudge through the muck and mire of city finances to find a way for Chester to right its financial ship back to good health. 

Not only are residents becoming more educated and aware of the environmental issues plaguing Chester, we are finally seeing a breakthrough in support from a lot of people throughout Delaware County, including County Council. Several municipalities have voted no on continuing to send their trash to Chester to burn. County Council is starting to take sides on the issue. And, many people from around the county and beyond are responding to the environmental activist community on Zoom calls, lectures, presentations, demonstrations, letter writing and attendance at their respective municipal council meetings. 

I provided public comment at the County Council meeting last week letting them know to look out for Chester folks coming out and voicing their opinions and demands. During the second round of public comments, there were a few Chester folks doing just that. 

Here’s a few passages from today’s Delaware County Daily Times on that County Council meeting…

…all of our efforts of economic development will not succeed if Covanta is still there,” Councilwoman Elaine Paul Schaefer said to audience applause at Wednesday’s county council meeting. We can have fancy, multi-use development envisioned for that coastline and investors are going to continue to turn away because of Covanta.

She says ‘investors are going to continue to turn away because of Covanta.’ That implies there have been prospects for development on the Chester waterfront but businesses keep running away because they don’t want to be around a smelly trash incinerator. However, there’s this quote from today’s article…

Covanta itself took issue with the claims of being an economic detractor…(it) most definitely does not deter businesses from communities, in fact they can be an attraction. Europe, waste-to-energy facilities have been the preferred method over landfills and have been integrated into major population centers, such as Paris. In Copenhagen, they even built a ski slope on top of their waste-to-energy facility for recreation.

Somehow, Covanta as an attraction to business is flying way over my head. If new businesses haven’t flocked to surround them on Chester’s waterfront by now, I don’t think their attraction powers are working out well for Chester. And, let’s remind them, we’re talking about Chester, not Europe, Paris or ski slopes in Denmark. We want to hear what they’re doing to make Chester better. 

Niagara, N.Y., our facility has become a green anchor for the community, partnering with six businesses adjacent to our facility where we supply energy from the waste they generate and feed it back into their business. This is a true success story where we act as a utility for these businesses so that they can continue to be economic drivers in the region.”

Covanta

But you can’t slide a few Kilowatt hours to Chester homes? It would be nice to get a little break on our electric bill since up to 70,000 other homes are potentially powered from the trash burned in Chester. If plugging their electricity in the grid for other’s to use is the best they can do for Chester, you’re really not helping us. If we were treated like the businesses in Niagara, you may have a little more support from Chester folks. 

They want us to know that the Chester facility operates up to 99 percent below its federally regulated standards for emissions. That’s a tricky statement because most of us don’t know how safe the federally regulated standards are, nor do we know how many hours of the year the Chester facility operates up to 99% below the regulated standards. Of course, if they operated up to 99% below the regulated standards 99% of the time, the feds would know their standards are way too conservative and would regulate the pollution much more closely. 

Apparently, there is a hearing set in Harrisburg for September to consider renewing Covanta’s permit. It could be renewed as is. It could become more or less stringent. It may not be renewed, putting them immediately out of business. 

Covanta says they recycle 50,000 tons of metal annually like that helps Chester residents somehow. They also pride themselves on employing 105 people, 46 percent of whom live within 10 miles of the plant (but less than 8 people from Chester work there).

Chester folks who spoke at County Council said… 

There has to be a human cost that’s attributed to this debate. It’s way too expensive at this point. We’re not willing to pay … costs with our lives … people are dying. People’s lives are being lost. We’re being polluted for other people’s comfort. We need to have a voice and we’re tired of other people making decisions that directly affect our lives. It’s like taxation without any representation. We’re asking for your help.

One member of County Council said…

I really appreciate those of you standing up here for your community and your families and your neighbors and all those affected by the injustices of decades of systemic racism in Delaware County. Maybe there is a creative way in which this council can do more

It’s mentioned that the city of Chester receives approximately $5 million a year, or about a tenth of its budget, from Covanta as a hosting fee. I don’t know if this hosting fee agreement has ever been renegotiated since its inception. To my knowledge, there aren’t incentives, penalties or built in increases in the host fees to the city. With every other cost going up every year, I’ve never heard the hosting fee from Covanta to the city has ever gone up. 

Mayor Thaddeus Kirkland has said…

Covanta has been both a good neighbor and a good partner to Chester. They have been, and continue to be, a part of our community for the long haul, serving the waste disposal needs of our community and many other communities, and is the preferred alternative to landfills, while providing important economic benefits to our city and the larger region.

There’s not a lot of buy in to those claims among Chester residents. From what I hear, Chester folks are tired of serving the waste disposal needs of many other communities and see it as time for some other municipality to carry the load for the next 30-years. Chester’s time is up in the trash business. It’s time to grow the city financially and help get our people healthy again. 

Covanta Delaware Valley and the rest of the plants in our fleet help municipalities and businesses achieve their sustainability goals to minimize waste to greenhouse gas producing landfills.

Covanta

We have complete confidence you can move your plants elsewhere and continue doing the fine work you do. Chester does not want to be the last and final location for your trash incinerator.  

…not using the Covanta facility could result in higher costs and increased traffic…the only option is to send waste to other landfills, which would be contingent on space, and would likely result in increased costs…Another adverse effect would be increased truck traffic as we would replace the lost county waste with waste from further distances. Truck traffic would increase even more with the county sending its waster further distances to a landfills.

Covanta

I don’t know about other municipalities, but people in Chester get hit with trash fee increases every year. We don’t have a problem sending our trash to landfills just as Covanta doesn’t have a problem sending their ash to those same landfills. 

I’m tired of hearing Covanta tell folks that truck traffic will increase somewhere else if trash goes to landfills. We want to hear the plan to decrease truck traffic in Chester. 

Obviously, times are changing in the trash business. People all around are finally recognizing Chester as a city that will never reach its full potential as long as trash is being burned on the waterfront. Common sense says the value of Chester riverfront property would increase greatly if there wasn’t a huge trash incinerator in Chester. 

Covanta, and Chester City government who supports Covanta, are grossly outnumbered by people in opposition to the toll their business has in Chester and surrounding communities. Their talking points are not passing the smell test any longer.