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Chester blasted as ‘corrupt’ over spate of trash plants

Feb. 19, 1998
Of the Times Staff

A story in George that lists Chester as one of “the 10 most corrupt cities in America” is rekindling the passionate debate in the city about “environmental racism.”

The story, in the magazine’s March issue due on newsstands next week, dubs Chester “Toxic Town USA.”

The case for such notoriety is stated in seven paragraphs, which focus exclusively on the environmental racism debate that has raged in the mostly black city over the last decade as five waste treatment facilities moved to the lower West End.

The story blames uncaring local politicians and state environmental officials for making Chester “Delaware County’s waste basket.”

But is the concentration of the plants in Chester driven by race or poverty?

Zulene Mayfield, chairwoman of Chester Residents Concerned for Quality Living, which formed to fight the plants in City Hall and in courtrooms, thinks it’s race.

“There is a collective effort of the waste industries to locate businesses where blacks reside,” she said.

“It’s clear that these conditions could not exist except in communities where minorities and the poor live,” agreed the Rev. Horace Strand, another longtime environmental activist. “What we have in Chester is just blatant.”

Last month, Chester Resident won a victory in a federal appeals court that allows its environmental racism suit against the state Department of Environmental Protection to proceed.

“I think the residents have the right to reject policies that result in placing such a concentration of facilities in one corner of the community,” Chester Residents’ attorney Jerome Balter said. “They have some reason to believe that they are being discriminated against.”

Others disagree.

“What environmental racism?” asked Common Pleas Judge Ed Zetusky, a former Chester solicitor and councilman who was involved in the “Trash War” of the late ’80s, when Westinghouse and the city were competing for a single DEP permit.

“What people forget is when the request came in to consider the Westinghouse plant, the West End of Chester was predominantly white; it wasn’t black.”

The plant, now owned by American Ref-Fuel, pays a fee to the city that for years has been an economic godsend to the perpetually strapped city. The money has averted both dramatic tax hikes and reductions in the ranks of police officers and firefighters.

Zetusky said studies have shown that the plants in question don’t come close to emitting the amount of pollution that was present in Chester when the city enjoyed its industrial heyday a few decades ago.

“Having said that, if we could have attracted any other businesses to locate there, we would have taken them, but nobody was clamoring to move into the city.”

State Rep. Thaddeus Kirkland (D-159) is against the number of plants in the city, but doesn’t think skin color is an issue.

“I honestly believe that if a town was poor and 90 percent white or Hispanic, they’d set up shop,” he said.

“They thought Chester was so down and out that it couldn’t look a gift horse in the mouth and had to accept whatever was offered to them, but the reason it was offered to them was because it was predominantly minority,” countered Sheridan Jones, who was once the executive director of the city’s proposed plant, which was never built.

“I think geography has an awful lot to do with it,” said city Councilman and Public Safety Director Pete Seltzer.

“Is it racist to put a trash plant that needs water on the river because black people live by the river?” he asked.

Mayfield said members of city council have been grossly deficient in creatively attracting businesses without smokestacks to Chester.

Seltzer said that could change if the proposed Keystone Opportunity Zones pass in the state Legislature.

“I’ve had tons of inquiries from some very exciting businesses who are interested in the city for a 12-year tax break,” he said.

That’s the kind of thing Mayfield loves to hear.

“If these businesses decided to leave tomorrow, we would still be here to build up this community,” she said.

How Chester made the list, by George

Of the Times Staff

How did Chester end up on George’s list of America’s 10 most corrupt cities?

Matthew Saal, associate editor of the glossy monthly that peeks inside life in the Washington Beltway, credits city government’s failure to serve its people.

“On that score, we realized that Chester fails, not just miserably, but is among the worst we could come up with,” Saal said.

George editors cast a wide net looking for different kinds of corruption. Some cities were chosen for traditional corruption – bribery and extortion.

“But we wanted to look at a more broad sense of corruption, instances where government does not well serve its citizens. That’s where Chester comes in.”

George is not alleging city government has done anything illegal, although there were past legal issues.

“It didn’t seem fair, frankly, to say someone went to jail 10 years ago,” Saal said, referring to former Mayor Jack Nacrelli’s racketeering conviction. But it’s also far too easy for Chester’s government to deflect criticism by saying they’re not doing anything illegal, that a few jobs were created by the waste facilities and that they brought in some needed revenue, he added.

George staffers were amazed by an account of Mayor Aaron Wilson refusing to address citizens’ concerns about a proposed additional waste treatment facility, telling activist Zulene Mayfield she had no right to challenge him.

“It seemed pretty remarkable,” Saal said. “It did seem like arrogance, or just not caring, or not making an effort.”

George did not attempt to talk to Wilson, although staffers visited the city in January.
The recent federal court ruling which found credibility to an environmental racism suit filed by Chester activists also caught the magazine’s eye.

Health officials reject high mortality claim

Of the Times Staff
CHESTER – Waste treatment facilities are not to blame for the city’s health problems and high infant mortality rates.

Look to teenage pregnancy, lack of prenatal care, AIDS/HIV, drug abuse and violence, said city and state health officials yesterday.

“We have high infant mortality,” conceded city health director, Dr. Irshad Shaikh, after reading a facsimile of the George article labeling Chester “Toxic Town, USA.”

But Chester’s problems are no worse than inner city Philadelphia or Baltimore, Md., where waste treatment facilities are not a factor, he said.

“Any city that has the same economic profile, we do not differ,” said Shaikh. “Unless we address the real issues and root causes, we will not be able ever to get out of this worsening health and socio-economic condition.”

Citing a study published by the New England Journal of Medicine in 1993, Shaikh said, “Poor and poorly educate people still die at higher rates than those with higher incomes and better educations, and this disparity increased between 1960 and 1984.”

Joel Hersch, director of the Bureau of Epidemiology for the state Health Department, called it “bordering on irresponsible” for the magazine to subjectively blame the city’s five trash plants for the state’s highest infant mortality rate.

Shaikh said of the city’s 726 live births in 1995, 80 percent were to unmarried females. Of those, 35 percent were under the age 19, and more than 60 percent had less than a high school education.

Late or no prenatal care impacted 12.2 percent of those new mothers, the highest figure in the state.

” That’s not to say we need to be complacent. We are working to improve health issues,” Shaikh said.

Concerns of environmental justice raised by Zulene Mayfield and others opposed to waste facilities are another issue, one of balance and fairness, said Hersch.

“Is there a point where you should not burden a community with additional facilities? The answer is probably yes.”

The problem arises as to where to stop, especially because there is no way to calculate potential problems, either individual or cumulative.

“I don’t know where the line in the sand is.”

Two city voices respond to ‘corrupt’ label

Feb. 19, 1998
Of the Times Staff

In the George article Zulene Mayfield, chairperson of Chester Residents Concerned for Quality Living, and Chester Mayor Aaron Wilson were mentioned. Yesterday, they gave their thoughts on a number of issues presented in the article.

Q. Is it fair to call Chester one of the most corrupt cities in the nation based on the environmental issue?

: Yes. At least partially, the corruption is responsible for the waste facilities coming here. The corruption has caused disarray in the city. And because of the corruption, there are not always the most competent people in positions of authority.

Wilson: Chester is not a corrupt city presently, so I don’t think that’s fair to say. The (city’s) leadership should take a positive step in helping the people with some of these problems. I have formed an advisory committee on the environment and am working toward doing something about what’s going on in the city.

Q. Could city leaders have stopped the waste facilities from coming to Chester if they wanted to?

: Most definitely. There are other areas who are faced with these types of situations and they have done right by its citizens. A prime example is Morrisville, Pa. where they were trying to put a waste facility up there. They had cooperation, from the citizens up to the local government. In fact, they took the ordinance we (Chester City Council) passed in 1994 and mirrored and strengthened it to keep the company out. Whereas here, the city council has just reversed our ordinance. They called it redesigning it, but now it is almost non-effective.

Wilson: The permitting is done through the state, but the city should be loud and clear on something that’s bad for the citizens. That doesn’t mean if someone has a right to do something, we can block them. We can’t be biased toward a business, even if we don’t like the business. Because then they appeal, go through the process and still beat you. We do need, as elected leaders, to get on board and get more involved in this situation. There has been no plant that’s come in since we’ve (his administration) has been in office.

Q. Is the health of Chester’s residents effected by the trash plants?

: Most definitely. That’s almost a no-brainer. You can not put these facilities in a community where there is already poor health and a lack of accessibility to health care, where the infant mortality rate is the greatest in the state, and not expect it to degrade more. It’s extremely difficult to say it’s done this or that. But we know when we can look across the street and see trees die it is indicative to what is happening to us. It’s the canary in the mine situation.

Wilson: I can’t answer that. I read the studies, but if somebody challenged me I could not document (the findings.) But if there’s one pollutant in the air, I’d be opposed to it.

Q. If another waste facility wanted to locate in the city, would you reject it?

: I would, as would a good part of the city. We’d dig in the trenches and fight for our survival. This is not an issue of people vs. capitalism, its a life or death situation for this community. Past history shows, when these things come into a city, it almost kills any chance of economic revitalization. It makes people flee from the city. I know people who have left because these plants are here.

Wilson: I would oppose that. Absolutely. There will be no more on my watch.

Q. Is race a factor in the clustering of these facilities in Chester?

: Yes. If you ask people in Chester, They know that. It’s people who live outside of Chester who don’t believe that environmental racism can occur. Look in your neighborhood and tell me if these facilities are there. These things are sited in black communities. Race is the number one indication of why they are placed in community.

Wilson: It’s not a racial thing. It has to do with poor people. It’s the oppression of poor people.

Q. Chester’s government at one time tried to build its own trash plant. Why was there no outcry about environmental racism?

: I did not speak to Mayor (Willie Mae) Leake about it. I believe at that time, the administration saw the economic injustice of what was happening, (Westinghouse) getting $70/ton to burn waste, and we were designated to get $2.50/ton. They were thinking purely about economics. They saw clearly how the people of Chester were getting shafted economically and they pursued their own project.

Wilson: Now your getting to the heart of it. Was there racism there?

Q. Do you see any benefit to the plants?

: No, I do not. People will talk in terms of jobs, in terms of the boost to the economy, but in actuality these things do not create a lot of jobs.

Wilson: It’s a tax base. We have the highest tax per capita in the state, quite possibly in the country. We must do something about that. We can’t do it on the backs of the people.