by Russell, SPEEC
Up to this point we have laid out the different aspects of the situation in Chester in the same order as the information was revealed to the residents in the neighborhood. The facilities appeared out of nowhere for the residents, and many of the impacts were felt immediately. But how did this situation come about? The last piece of the puzzle, and the hardest to fit together, has been figuring out who was responsible for creating this mess, and how to remedy the situation.
Chester didn’t turn into a (literal) waste-land on its own. International economic forces, and outside political interests played big roles. But the specific history of how this situation developed, involves an investment banking firm out of Pittsburgh called Russell, Rea, and Zappala (RR&Z), the multinational corporation, Westinghouse, and irresponsible and or ineffective public officials at the local, county, state, and federal levels.
In 1985, RR&Z purchased the land where Westinghouse and Thermal Pure now sit, and where Soil Remediations hopes to soon be located. To avoid sounding like bad guys from out-of-town, RR&Z partnered with Westinghouse and created a company called Chester Solid Waste Associates to be the official owners of the land. This name — Chester Solid Waste Associates — is in itself an indication of a long-term plan on the part of RR&Z to create a multi-business waste mecca in Chester. The diagram shows how the partners in RR&Z and James Cronin of Westinghouse are top level managers and or part owners of the Westinghouse Incinerator, Thermal Pure Systems, Soil Remediation Services, LCA Leasing, and Chester Solid Waste Associates.
As part of its plan, RR&Z began talking to Delaware County officials about the idea of building a mass-burn trash-to-steam plant (incinerator) as a solution to the county’s rising waste disposal costs and the region’s dwindling landfill space. In the mean time, they set up the first of many businesses at the site, a trash transfer station called LCA Leasing, which brought the first glimpse of waste, trucks, and trash odors to the neighborhood. The next company to arrive was a demolition debris recycling company called Abbonizio Recycling Corporation, whose irresponsible practices continue to create an enormous amount of dust in the neighborhood.
In 1988 the deal between RR&Z and Delaware County was finalized when the incinerator was granted an operating permit by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Resources or DER (now called the Penn. Dept. of Environmental Protection, DEP). Westinghouse, which like RR&Z is headquartered in Pittsburgh, won the contract to operate the facility. Part of the deal was that while the County would help finance the facility and pay for its waste to be disposed there, Westinghouse in turn had to landfill the incinerator ash in a landfill owned by Delaware County. This complicated scenario works out to game of I’ll pay you, then you pay me, at the expense of the residents of Chester. The County official who brokered the deal with Westinghouse soon became the highest paid county official in the state.
The residents in the neighborhood did not know what was being built at Front and Thurlow streets, and the sign that read Delaware County Resource Recovery Facility gave no real indication of what the facility actually was. They had no idea how enormous the facility would be, or how much it would affect their daily lives. By 1991 the construction of the incinerator was complete. In a feeble attempt to win over the residents, Westinghouse provided free hot dogs, sodas, and balloons at the grand opening celebration.
The towering furnace across the street was an imposing sight for the residents of Front, Thurlow, Booth, 2nd, and 3rd streets and Highland Avenue. As the 300+ trash trucks per day began rumbling down their neighborhood streets on their way into and out of the Westinghouse site, the residents of the west-end of Chester started to feel the full impact of their new unwanted neighbor: the truck traffic from LCA Leasing and Abbonizio was increased many times over, the trash odors began competing with DelCora’s sewage odors as the worst in the neighborhood.
In 1992 the Chester Residents Concerned for Quality Living was formed. The residents had become fed up with the dust, the odors, the trucks, and the noise. But what really jolted them into action was concern over the health problems that seemed to be on the rise in the community, and the uncertainty over what long-term, invisible effects their new polluting neighbor might be having on them.
After recruiting members and staging a couple of protests in front of the Westinghouse facility and in Delaware County Council chambers, the residents attention was shifted to a new threat. An article in the paper described how Midlantic BioWaste Systems Inc., a subsidiary of Thermal Pure Systems, wanted to build an infectious medical waste sterilization plant next to Westinghouse. Thermal Pure had been sold to BioMedical Waste Systems (or BioMed). The residents quickly gathered 500+ signatures in opposition to BioMed and handed them over to the City Council and the DER. The company withdrew their permit application, and soon re-filed the application under the name Thermal Pure.
On December 18, 1992, all of the City Council members except for the mayor sent a letter to the governor and to the DER asking them to expedite the permitting of Thermal Pure. Holding no public hearing, the DER granted Thermal Pure a permit. State law instructs the DER to hold a public hearing as part of the permitting process when the permit is controversial or there is known public opposition. By not holding a public hearing, DER was saying that there was no known public opposition to Thermal-Pure, in spite of the 500+ signatures they had in opposition to BioMed.
In 1993, Thermal Pure Systems was permitted to sterilize 4 to 5 times the amount of infectious waste produced in the entire state of Pennsylvania — 288 tons per day. Under state law, any incinerator or other disposer of medical waste can only take in 70% of the waste produced in that section of the state. This law suggests that Thermal Pure should only be able to process about 29 tons per day, or 10% of their permitted capacity. CRCQL sued the state on the basis of that claim, and the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania ruled in their favor. Thermal Pure was ordered to shut down because their permit was deemed invalid. But the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, using its King’s Bench Power, snatched the case out of the Commonwealth Court and granted a stay on the order to shut down Thermal Pure. Recently, that same court overturned the Commonwealth Court’s decision, re-validating Thermal Pure’s permit.
Not coincidentally, one of the State Supreme Court Justices is named Stephen Zappala, brother of the partner in Russell, Rea, and Zappala. While Justice Zappala recused himself from the case, he clearly exercised his influence by convincing the court to use the outdated King’s Bench statute.
While the Thermal Pure battle was underway, CRCQL had found out that Soil Remediations Services, a contaminated soil burning plant, was seeking a permit to operate behind Thermal Pure. SRS, the next in a seemingly endless line of waste industries trying to site in Chester, received immediate and intense opposition from the a now more organized CRCQL. Petitions, protests, and testimony at public hearing combined to send a clear message to SRS and DEP that the community did not want another polluter. In a strange twist of fate, the residents were able to convince all five members of City Council to oppose the permitting of SRS. CRCQL’s efforts were so effective, that the companies actually paid people in the community to be outspoken in favor of SRS.
The size of the developing controversy over the waste industries in Chester got the attention of the EPA in 1994. President Clinton’s Executive Order on Environmental Justice mandated that 16 federal agencies must begin to address the fact that poor and minority communities are exposed to disproportionate levels of environmental health hazards. The EPA chose Chester to conduct a unique six month cumulative risk assessment study of a community in 1994. The study would look at the scientific evidence for the claims that the residents were making about health problems. The Secretary of the DER, forced into this position at a meeting with CRCQL, agreed to put off the decision on the SRS permit until the EPA study was completed.
The EPA study was completed in the Fall of 1994. The EPA determined that both cancer and non-cancer risks in Chester were unacceptable. The EPA recommended compliance assistance, enforcement of regulations, and a voluntary emissions reduction program for the polluting facilities. Unless the companies voluntary agreed to spend tens of millions of dollars on reducing their emissions, these recommended actions would only tinker with pollution levels from the facilities. While the findings of the EPA study supported the concerns of the residents, the EPA claimed to have no real power to make meaningful change. The regional administrator of EPA once admitted to the Chester Residents that, yes we are the Environmental Protection Agency, but no, we cannot protect you.
Nearly all of the work of CRCQL up to this point, had involved reacting to the actions of the industries and the government. The bureaucrats and companies were setting the agenda and making the calls, while the residents exhausted their energy trying to convince the power brokers to act on their behalf. Something needed to be done pro-actively to cut these industries off at the pass.
New-found support from Chester City Council became an important advantage for CRCQL. The residents, working with their attorney, convinced the Chester City Council to change the City’s zoning code to make it more difficult for waste-related industries to site there. In June of 1994, the City Council passed an ordinance which forced any new waste industry wanting to site in Chester to prove that overall pollution levels in the City would not increase when they began operating. Finally, we hoped, the influx of new waste industries might be stopped.
Also that summer, CRCQL began an outreach campaign around the pollution problems in the city and the issue of childhood lead poisoning. We distributed information in the community about the pollution coming from the various industries, and helped to connect parents of lead-poisoned kids with the City’s childhood lead poisoning prevention program. The pinnacle of the campaign was a Community Health Day, at which more than 100 people were tested for lead, asthma, and high blood pressure. Largely as a result of CRCQL’s efforts, Delaware County allocated $400,000 for lead education and abatement in Chester. Finally, the government was forced to react to the residents, instead of the other way around.
In the summer of 1995, the Clean Air Council worked closely with Swarthmore students and CRCQL on a health survey in the neighborhood. The purpose of the survey was to collect information on the health problems that people in the community are experiencing. The results have revealed frighteningly high levels of asthma, bronchitis, eye irritation, ear infections, headaches, fatigues, colds, allergies and other ailments, particularly among residents who have lived in the neighborhood for five years or more (you’ll hear more about the survey tomorrow). Once again, we plan to use this health survey to make government and industry react to the residents, rather than the other way around.
After a record-breaking year-long stalling game by the DEP, SRS was granted an operating permit in the summer of 1995. But because of the zoning ordinance, SRS still does not have the needed building permit from the local zoning board. Also in ’95, Westinghouse was permitted to burn residual waste, which can be significantly more toxic than municipal solid waste, as they include wastes contaminated with PCB’s, asbestos, pesticides, and other extremely toxic substances. The permit was vehemently opposed by the community once again, but in usual fashion, DEP granted Westinghouse the permit anyway.
Currently CRCQL is in negotiations with Delcora to settle a lawsuit by agreeing on pollution prevention measures which the facility can implement. But while these positive steps are being taken, at least two more waste-based industries are currently looking to site in Chester. Furthermore, the newly elected City Council may overturn the recently enacted zoning ordinance, reversing an important and hard-fought victory. But CRCQL somehow continues to fight for a decent place to live.
Read about RR&Z’s Waste Treatment Facilities in Chester City