Environmental Injustice in Chester, PA

By Heather Kurtz
Asst. Focus Editor of Shippensburg University’s paper, The Slate

One of the worst cases of environmental injustice in the country is taking place in the city of Chester, PA.

Chester, located southwest of Philadelphia in Delaware County, has a population of approximately 43,000. 65% of its residents are African-American. It has a median family income which is 45% lower than other towns in Delaware County and has a poverty rate of 25%.

Since 1986, the Pittsburgh investment company of Russell, Rea, and Zappala has methodically developed plots of land directly connected to the community of Chester into various waste processing facilities. Some facts about present ongoing activities of their facilities are listed as follows:

  • 90% of all toxic chemical and criteria air pollutants released in Delaware County are from Chester area sources,
  • 100% of all municipal solid waste in Delaware County is burned at the Westinghouse incinerator in Chester,
  • 90% of all sewage in Delaware County is treated at the Delaware sewage plant in Chester(as well as wastewater from industries),
  • Sewage sludge from DELCORA and three other Delaware County sewage plants is burned at the DELCORA incinerator in Chester,
  • Infectious medical waste from numerous states (OH, VA, DE, MD, NJ + NY) is treated at the Thermal Pure Plant in Chester, the nation’s largest infectious waste processing plant. Thermal Pure (illegally) receives 550% of the waste generated in the state of Pennsylvania.

The city of Chester is also surrounded by the polluting industries of BP and Sun Oil, WitCo Chemical, PECO’s coal-burning plant and Scott Paper.

The presence of these facilities may be contributing to the poor health of the city’s residents. Chester has the highest infant mortality rate in the state, the highest percentage of low-weight births in the state, and has a mortality rate and a lung cancer mortality rate about 60% higher than the overall rates for Delaware County.

However, Chester residents are not the only ones whose health is at risk. For example, pollutants released by the Westinghouse incinerator spread approximately 17 miles from their origin due to shifts in wind patterns. Incinerators release many carcinogenic toxins in the air, including dioxin, which is arguably the most deadly toxin known to mankind.

Westinghouse is just one of the many deadly facilities existing in Chester. The harmful pollutants that each release can affect the health and well-being of every resident of Delaware County!

Chester Residents Concerned for Quality Living (CRCQL), is a grassroots organization that was formed in 1992 to deal with residents’ concerns about the waste facilities in the neighborhood. These concerns include the pungent odors, trucks, noise and health problems that have plagued the neighborhood since the arrival of the facilities. Due to their lack of power and financial resource, residents of this low-income, minority community are being viewed as an acceptable risk with low liability. Russell, Rea, and Zappala are completely taking advantage of the residents of Chester and impose these waste plants without any regard to their impacts on people’s lives.

On June 28, 1995, The Department of Environmental Protection, (DEP) issued a permit to Soil Remediation Services to allow them to place a soil burner in Chester. Soil burners purify petroleum contaminated soil and release those contaminants into the air. This permit was issued in spite of the fact that in 1994 the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) assessed that health risks from pollution sources in Chester exceeded acceptable limits. Also, EPA found that the intrinsic poor health of Chester residents makes them more susceptible to the health effects of pollution. Recently, the Cherokee Environmental Group applied to process 960 tons of contaminated soil per day in Chester. Again, members of CRCQL are fighting, this time it is against the placement of these extremely toxic soil burners into their backyards.

The Department Of Environmental Protection is supposed to protect Americans from environmental injustice, hence the name. On December 6, 1995, the Secretary of DEP, James Sief, was asked by an elderly resident of Chester: “Sir, we know that they (waste facilities) have to go somewhere, but why do they all have to go in Chester?” Sief responded, “Where else are we going to put them?” DEP has done everything but protect the citizens of Chester. Their negligent attitude is clearly reflected in Sief’s response.

Zulene Mayfield is the Chairperson of Chester Residents Concerned for Quality Living. She does not consider herself an environmental activist, but merely a resident who is fed up with the pollution, corruption and the injustice. Mayfield believes that the conditions of her, and our, environment will improve, and the air will become safer to breathe “…if more communities would fight and if everybody would view Chester as their community. It would automatically bring into effect a change that would protect everybody. The industries would be forced into finding safer methods of waste management, making the environment safer for all of us. We would be forced into making the right choices.”

Many congressmen prefer we remain unaware of the ineffective methods of waste management used in PA and fail to educate us on what we can do, as consumers, to stop the need for waste facilities. They profit from our environmental illiteracy.

Perhaps the greatest actions that we can take to help eliminate the need for waste facilities in our country, particularly our state, are among the simplest! The simple acts of reducing your use of throw- away items, reusing them, and especially recycling them will continue to prove critical to the conservation of Earth’s resources and ultimately to the quality of our air.

The residents of Chester are desperate for outside help and want to make the injustice in their city a statewide, if not nationwide issue. Mayfield encourages us to write, call, or e-mail our congressmen, state reps., the mayor, Senators Bell and Kirkland, and the Governor. Ask them what they are doing about the situation and voice your concern.

Shippensburg University’s “The Slate”- 1/30/96

Note: Permission to reprint or rewrite all or part of this article has been granted by the author.