Environmental Racism in Chester

by Mike Ewall, Campus Coalition Concerning Chester (C-4)

The worst case of environmental racism he’s ever seen. This was the reaction of Charles Lee, chairperson of the National Environmental Justice Advisory Committee to the Environmental Protection Agency. Mr. Lee has been active in Environmental Justice issues for over 17 years. He was talking about the city of Chester, Pennsylvania.

Residing in Delaware County, just 15 miles southwest of Philadelphia, Chester is home to 43,000 residents and one of the largest collections of waste facilities in the country. Sixty-five percent of Chester residents are African-American as are 95% of residents in neighborhoods closest to the facilities. The poverty rate lies at 25%, which is 3 times the national average.

The largest garbage-burning incinerator in the state (and the 7th largest in the nation) is located directly across the street from residential houses in Chester’s west end. The incinerator was originally operated by Westinghouse, but was turned over to American Ref-Fuel in early 1997. Over half of the waste burned there is from out of state and comes from New York, New Jersey, Maryland and Delaware as well as from all over Pennsylvania. The plant has had several air emissions and odor violations but few penalties have been assessed by the state. In 1993, a highly radioactive pellet of Cesium-137 was lost. The community wasn’t notified until many months after the fact. The pellet was either vaporized in the incinerator or melted down in the steel plant of one of Westinghouse’s contractors. This means that it’s either in the air and ash from the incinerator or is now a part of the metal consumer products that were manufactured by Lukens Steel Co. No fines were assessed.

Literally next door to the incinerator lies the largest infectious and chemotherapeutic medical waste autoclave in the nation, Thermal Pure Systems. The plant, recently resold, has been shut down for a few years now and Thermal Pure has been near bankruptcy. While operating, Thermal Pure brought in about three times the amount of medical waste as is produced in the state of Pennsylvania. Waste was trucked in, sterilized and shipped back out to a landfill near Harrisburg. While operating, it wasn’t unusual to find medical waste lying in the grass outside the boundaries of the plant, where children are free to play. Multiple workers at the plant have been stabbed by needles while handling the waste. Some have been fired after the incidents, leaving the workers with recurring rashes and other health problems that medical personnel cannot identify. In one case, the worker’s wife divorced him for fear of being infected by him.

In July 1995, Thermal Pure left 33 trucks of medical waste sit, unrefrigerated, in the baking sun for 4 days. Legally, they are only allowed to leave such waste in those conditions for 24 hours. Also against regulations, Thermal Pure failed to notify the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) that they had a shutdown. When residents notified the Department, officials claimed that trucks could not be moved because doing so might constitute a health hazard.

Only a stone’s throw away from the Thermal Pure plant lies the DELCORA sewage treatment facility. DELCORA treats about 90% of the sewage from Delaware County, but this only accounts for 20% of their capacity. The other 80% comes from local industries in Chester, like the Sunoco and British Petroleum (now Tosco) refineries which span the western horizon and from Scott Paper and Witco Chemical. This highly toxic industrial sludge is then burned in DELCORA’s sludge incinerator, releasing many pollutants, including high levels of arsenic which the EPA found to be at unsafe levels in the community. Sludge from 3 other county sewage plants is also sent to be burned in DELCORA’s incinerator.

As if this weren’t enough, Chester is also home to many other chemical companies, hospital incinerators, trash transfer stations, and hazardous waste treatment facilities. Just east of Chester lies PECO Energy’s Eddystone coal plant and on the west side lies the Marcus Hook refineries and more chemical companies.

In recent years, two new companies have proposed to bring contaminated soil into Chester. Soil Remediation Services (SRS) and Cherokee Environmental Group planned to treat 900 and 960 tons per day, respectively; the first burning the soil and releasing the pollution into Chester’s air, the second using a bio-remediation technology. Thankfully, SRS’s air pollution permit expired in November, 1996, effectively killing the project unless they reapply.

One might think that these two largest plants (American Ref-Fuel and Thermal Pure) were part of the same company, due to their close proximity to one another. In a way, they are. The citizens group, Chester Residents Concerned for Quality Living (CRCQL or “circle”) figured out, about 2 years after being formed in 1992, that there is one company connected to a string of facilities bringing waste to Chester. Careful research uncovered that the land under the American Ref-Fuel and Thermal Pure plants, as well as the LCA Leasing trash transfer station, a rock crushing plant, and the proposed SRS soil burner is owned by the investment firm, Russell, Rea, and Zappala (RR&Z), based in Pittsburgh. Corporate officers, Andrew Russell and Donald Rea serve as executive officers of some of these various facilities. Officer Charles Zappala’s older brother, Stephen Zappala, serves as a Supreme Court justice in Pennsylvania. This came in handy when the Chester residents took Thermal Pure to court for taking over 10 times what is allowed by law (although DEP gave them a permit for this volume). When the citizens won this suit, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court used an archaic law called King’s Bench Rule to use their power to overturn the lower court’s ruling, allowing the facility to run again.

So does all of this constitute racism? Is it just a matter of classism, where poor communities tend to end up with most of society’s waste?

Many studies have shown that waste facilities (particularly hazardous and nuclear waste facilities) tend to be located in communities of color, above and beyond class considerations. When factoring out the economic class of a community, race is still shown to be a significant factor. Middle class communities of color will end up with more waste facilities than poor white communities tend to.

The CRCQL office has been broken into twice, coinciding with the group’s involvement with opposition to RR&Z’s plants. Once the walls inside their office were magic-markered with graffiti, including “KKK.” Threats and obscenities have been left on the group’s answering machine. Activists routinely fine their tires slashed or must deal with other acts of intimidation. These types of harassment are typically not felt by white environmental groups.

When American Ref-Fuel took over the operations of the municipal waste incinerator, many experienced and locally-employed black workers were fired or demoted while white employees from the corporation’s other plants in NJ and NY have been brought in to staff the facility. One black person who worked at plant for 6 years was told he wasn’t qualified for the job. Whites are being promoted more often than black employees. A black man who was in management has been demoted and is now on the tipping floor unloading trucks for less than he used to make. Thirty employees have filed legal complaints.

In one protest where Chester residents physically blocked waste trucks from entering the waste complex, a protester was hit by one of the trucks. Peculiarly, it wasn’t the normal truck driver who hit the woman. He refused to drive past the people and turned his truck around. It was the president of the trucking company, Steven Ogborne, who got into the truck and drove it back to the plant, speeding through a line of protesters. Ogborne Waste Removal, a local waste company with recycling operations in Chester, is now pursuing an expansion of their operations in other to bring construction and demolition wastes into the city.

Chester has a zoning ordinance that is the first of its kind in the nation, banning industrial facilities from doing business in Chester unless they can prove that they will not create a net increase in pollution. Ogborne’s plans clearly violate this ordinance, yet the DEP is considering granting them a permit, anyway. The Soil Remediation Services plant (to be built on the RR&Z trash complex) was permitted by the DEP in 1995, even though the permit violated the unenforced ordinance as well. Unfortunately, this ordinance has been weakened in recent years by the city government and has gone unenforced.

Fed up with the DEP’s complicity with industry and lack of enforcement in Chester, CRCQL sued the state in May, 1996 for environmental racism under the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Since the DEP receives money from the federal EPA, they must comply with a rule stating that they “shall not use criteria or methods of administering its program which have the effect of subjecting individuals to discrimination because of their race, color, national origin, or sex.” The lawsuit contends that the state of Pennsylvania discriminated against the black community when the DEP did not consider the racial makeup of Chester or the number of existing facilities when permitting the city’s 5th waste treatment plant. This is the first lawsuit of its kind. Two previous suits in Michigan and in North Carolina were against single facilities rather than a group of them.

The lawsuit, while still in the courts, has provided pressure on DEP for them to prove that they aren’t systematically approving any waste facility targeted for Chester. In October, 1997 (CRCQL’s 5th year anniversary), DEP denied a permit to Cherokee for their proposed contaminated soil bioremediation plant. This is the first time that DEP denied a pollution permit to a corporation targeting Chester. The official reasons for their denial depended heavily on corporate non-compliance history exposed by citizen activists.

On December 30, 1997, a federal appeals court upheld the environmental racism suit (previously dismissed in a lower court) and backed the Chester Residents’ assertions that they do not have to prove intentional discrimination was at play. Given the green light, the lawsuit against the state will proceed and only a discriminatory effect on the part of the agency needs to be shown. This serves as a precedent-setting legal victory for communities throughout the entire nation.

On average, since CRCQL’s inception, one new polluter per year has proposed to build a plant in Chester. Earlier in 1997, CRCQL defeated a proposed pet crematorium. Combined with the defeat of both proposed soil remediation plants, this represents three defeated facilities in the span of a year. 1997 also brought the aforementioned legal victory and a settlement with the DELCORA sludge plant. The DELCORA settlement requires extensive plant improvements and also will fund a new children’s lead poisoning prevention program in the community. Despite this banner year of victories, the community must still fight the newly proposed expansion of the Ogborne plant and plans by the American Ref-Fuel incinerator to expand their waste storage capacity and to burn more hazardous types of waste.

In February 1996, students from Delaware County’s Swarthmore College held a conference about environmental racism in Chester. Close to 60 students from 15 universities spanning 5 states attended. By the end of the weekend, the Campus Coalition Concerning Chester or “C-4” was born. C-4 members have brought protests to the headquarters of the RR&Z firm in Pittsburgh, against the DEP and State Capital on Earth Day ’96, and against the Delaware State Solid Waste Authority (for sending most of their state’s waste to the single Westinghouse plant in Chester). C-4 has helped the Chester residents with research, computer and technical support, lobbying for environmental justice legislation, door-to-door canvassing in Chester, and increased awareness on campuses. Schools that are sending garbage or medical waste to Chester are focusing on waste prevention and recycling on their campuses. C-4 has also set up webpages on the Internet explaining what’s going on in Chester. Some schools have helped by bringing Zulene Mayfield, chairwoman of the Chester Residents Concerned for Quality Living to their schools and having her speak to their students.

Students at Drexel University have done an excellent documentary on Chester called “Laid to Waste – A Chester community fights for its future.” It’s 52 minutes long and has aired on PBS. It functions as a great education tool in the classroom and in presentations to groups. It has been helpful in getting African-American and anti-racism groups involved in this issue. For information on how you or your students can become involved in the Chester campaign or with the Student Environmental Action Coalition (SEAC) from which it grew, contact:

Mike Ewall ; 215-743-4884

C-4 has a web page at: http://www.ejnet.org/chester/

Reprinting permission is granted to anyone wanting to help stop environmental racism in Chester.


  • 90% of all toxic releases in Delaware County are from Chester area sources
  • Chester has the highest infant mortality rate in the state (more than double that of Delaware County)
  • The highest percentage of low-weight births in Pennsylvania is in Chester (almost double that of Delaware County)
  • Chester’s mortality rate and lung cancer mortality rate are 60% higher than those of Delaware County 60% of the children in Chester had unacceptably high levels of lead in their blood