The History of Covanta in Chester


This short video is a 2007 update to the 52-minute “Laid to Waste” documentary about environmental racism Chester made in 1996.

In early 2008, the DelCo Alliance for Environmental Justice stopped plans for the world’s largest tire incinerator mentioned in the video, and the threatened waste-to-fuel facilities never materialized. Currently, the main threat is the giant trash incinerator Covanta operates, which is Chester’s #1 air polluter and the largest incinerator in the nation.

Call to Action

Now is the time to get involved. Contact us! Chester, Pennsylvania has long been known as one of the nation’s worst cases of environmental racism. This small city just southwest of Philadelphia hosts the nation’s largest trash incinerator, a sewage sludge incinerator, a paper mill burning waste coal and petroleum coke, numerous chemical plants, toxic waste sites, and much more. Immediately surrounding it in the neighboring waterfront boroughs of Eddystone, Trainer, and Marcus Hook are additional major polluters: primarily oil refineries and gas-fired power plants.

Please be careful not to confuse legitimate environmental justice organizing in Chester with the “Chester Environmental Partnership” (CEP) which is a partnership between polluting industry, government, and Reverend Horace Strand, whose CEP organization and church have been receiving funding from Chester’s #1 polluter, the Covanta trash incinerator. It’s no surprise that Strand and CEP have gone on the record supporting Covanta, giving them awards, and advocating in favor of burning huge amounts of trash from New York City and Philadelphia in Chester.

We give “toxic tours” and presentations upon request, and are organizing to close down the Covanta incinerator, which burns up to 3,510 tons of trash per day, only about 1.5% of which is from the City of Chester. Trash incineration is the most expensive and polluting way to manage waste or to make energy.

Please be in touch if you’d like to get involved, either as a Chester resident, an ally whose waste comes to Chester, or if you’d like to be involved in environmental justice organizing wherever you’re from.

Our most recent effort was to stop Philadelphia from signing new contracts to keep sending trash to Chester. Sadly, Philadelphia’s Mayor and City Council ignored us and 40 other groups calling on them not to do so when approving new 4-7 year contracts in June 2019. We’re also in the midst of a 20-30 year contract for Manhattan waste to be burned in Chester. Please excuse the lack of more current content on the rest of this webpage. The most current info is here on the Philadelphia waste contract page, but we’ll be updating this soon, as we refocus efforts on stopping waste from Ocean City, MD from coming to Chester, and work toward zero waste alternatives in Delaware County.

The content below is for reference, from our efforts in 2014 to stop the New York City trash trains.


We had 100 people pack the Planning Commission meeting, standing room only. The Commission listened to us, and unanimously recommended that City Council vote “NO” on the trash train plan. We then packed the City Council meeting two weeks later with over 100 people. City Council delayed their vote, but never delivered on their promise for a public hearing. Instead of even holding their vote at a 7pm council meeting, they city council scheduled the vote for a 10am meeting on August 13th. With no effective public notice, they unanimously voted to approve the trash train plan. City council and Mayor Linder sold out Chester residents, caving in to Covanta’s legal threats, as if they were powerless to stand up to corporate bullying. They should have used their powers as city officials to stand up for health and safety, and fulfill their constitutional duties to protect Chester residents’ rights to clean air.

See our flyer and presentation to the Planning Commission to learn more.

Recent Media Coverage


For 23 years now, Chester has been home to the nation’s largest trash-burning plant at Front and Highland, now owned by Covanta. This incinerator has the fewest pollution controls installed of any of the six in the state, or in Covanta’s fleet of 39 incinerators.

Claiming it’ll cost too much, Covanta’s incinerator lacks the pollution controls they use elsewhere to remove the nitrogen oxides (NOx) that cause asthma. Chester’s rate of child hospitalization due to asthma is more than three times the state average, in large part because Covanta is one of the worst NOx polluters in all of eastern Pennsylvania. Covanta is also one of the worst polluters in the region for mercury, lead, dioxins and other toxins that contribute to cancers, birth defects, learning disabilities and more.

It’s unacceptable to help this polluter in our community stay open for another three decades, as other major polluters are shutting down, including coal power plants (like the coal burning in Eddystone) and waste incinerators.

Only 1.5% of the waste Covanta burns in Chester is from Chester. Covanta thrives on making Chester the burning ground for waste from Delaware County, Philadelphia, New York, New Jersey and many other states. Currently, they aim to bring in trash trains from New York City, to increase the amount burned from New York from a current rate of 200,000 tons/year to at least 500,000 tons/year — for the next 30 years. This plan is outlined on page 144 of a 700-page contract Covanta signed with New York City in July 2013. Since Covanta is not operating at full capacity so far this year, this DOES help them burn more waste and pollute Chester more.

Their current proposal before the Chester City Council must be rejected, as the Planning Commission unanimously recommended at their July 9, 2014 meeting.

Covanta’s trash-by-rail proposal helps them lock in 30 years of waste supply from the wealthiest part of New York City, bringing another 15 million tons of trash to be burned in Chester.

It also gives them the infrastructure to make Chester a regional trash transfer hub where extra trash (more than they can burn) can be brought in by rail and trucked out to feed their many other incinerators within the region. Covanta is increasingly getting into the trash transfer business and this proposed waste transfer hub could live on beyond the life of their incinerator.

Disapproving the trash-by-rail plan in no way will jeopardize the $4-5 million in host community fees that are collected by the City of Chester. The city’s reliance on host fees is not a reason to approve this plan.

Here’s why:

  1. This revenue is not at risk of going anywhere soon. Covanta cannot pick up and relocate, like a McDonalds could. No other community would accept an incinerator — especially the nation’s largest. No new incinerator has been sited and built in the U.S. in 17 years. It would also be illegal to build a new incinerator like they have, that operates without the pollution controls now required. Any threats of lost city revenue are hollow scare tactics.
  2. Chester’s health is not for sale. Chester residents suffer from abnormally high rates of asthma, cancers and other health problems that are caused and aggravated by industrial pollution. Premature deaths caused by Covanta’s pollution rival the number of gun deaths in Chester each year. The financial costs of premature deaths and disease caused by Covanta’s pollution far exceeds $5 million per year. Even if it were the same, the city cannot morally justify revenue obtained from harming health and shortening lives of Chester residents.
  3. Approving the plan assumes the incinerator will be around for 30 more years, and helps ensure it. In fact, the trend is that the largest polluters, mainly coal power plants and trash incinerators, are closing down as air pollution regulations become stricter over time. Many have closed in recent years and more will follow.
  4. In 2008, former Mayor Butler wrote a scathing rejection of a huge proposed tire incinerator (smaller than Covanta), stating: “regardless of their job creation claims and their alleged charitable benefits, [they are] not aligned with the future direction of the City of Chester.” The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has recently made it clear that local governments have a legal duty to protect our constitutional right to clean air.

Communities around the country are rejecting incineration and pursuing “zero waste” planning as a way to create green jobs, protect public health and generate revenue. Please help us urge Chester City officials to do the same, and to start by rejecting Covanta’s plan.

Energy Justice and Environmental Racism

Environmental Justice / Environmental Racism“Racism is the intentional or unintentional use of power to isolate, separate and exploit others. . .
Racism is more than just a personal attitude; it is the institutionalized form of the attitude” -National Council of Churches Racial Justice Working Group
_ _ _ _ _ _ _

* Some More Polluted than Others[ Unequal Cumulative Industrial Hazard Burdens in the Philadelphia MSA ]
(Powerpoint Presentation by Dr. Diane Sicotte)

“Now all of the issues of environmental racism and environmental justice don’t just deal with people of color.
We are just as much concerned with inequities in Appalachia, for example, where the whites are basically dumped on
because of lack of economic and political clout and lack of having a voice to say “no” and that’s environmental injustice.”
Dr. Robert Bullard


Presentations & Reports


Chester / Environmental Racism

Chester has the highest percentage of low-weight births in the state, and has mortality rate and lung cancer rates that are 60% higher than the rest of Delaware County.

Noise and vibration from the constant stream of trucks carrying infectious waste and garbage have caused the foundations of houses in Chester to crack. These trucks (at a rate of up to one truck every 4.5 minutes) travel the same roads that the children of Chester play in because they have no where else to go.

Blood-lead levels among the children of Chester are higher than anywhere else in Pennsylvania.

Chester, PA, a 75% African-American, low-income community Southwest of Philadelphia is home to numerous waste facilities, toxic waste sites, chemical plants and other industrial hazards. The nation’s largest trash incinerator, the nation’s largest medical waste autoclave (closed since 1995), and a sewage treatment plant and sewage sludge incinerator are all cited on properties just on the other side of the tracks from residential homes in Chester. The EPA has found that blood lead-levels in Chester’s children are “unacceptably high,” that “air emissions from facilities in and around Chester provide a large component of the cancer and non-cancer risks to the citizens of Chester,” and that “both cancer and non-cancer risks, e.g. kidney and liver disease and respiratory problems, from the pollution sources at locations in the city of Chester exceed levels which EPA believes are acceptable.”

Chester Residents Concerned for Quality Living (CRCQL, or “circle”) was a local grassroots community organization that fought for environmental justice in Chester from 1992 through 2001, under the leadership of Zulene Mayfield. From 1996-1999, the Campus Coalition Concerning Chester (C-4) brought together students from 15 campuses in five states to support environmental justice work in Chester. In 2007, the DelCo Alliance for Environmental Justice formed to continue the work of CRCQL, and stopped the world’s largest tire incinerator from locating in Chester. In 2014, residents reorganized under the name Chester Environmental Justice to fight the plan to bring in 20-30 years of New York City trash trains to burn at Covanta’s incinerator (a plan which was supported by Chester Environmental Partnership). As of late 2018, Zulene is back and reorganizing CRCQL. As of early 2019, students are reorganizing C-4.