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What Do We Owe Each Other?

Updated: Jan 9

Trying to get through the day can be such a challenge. Sometimes we can't take in one more thing, so we put on our blinders and work our way toward the next task. But what if at least some of the time we allowed ourselves a moment of openness. If we maintained our gaze instead of looking away and avoiding discomfort?

If you feel there is value in that, I would like to ask for two things. First, please tell me why it matters that we at least some of the time take in someone else's problems. Second, please read the article I've written below about incineration in the City of Chester, PA. Thank you in advance!

Fourteen rail cars with 56 empty waste containers heading back to NYC. According to an anonymous observer, the waste was trucked to the Covanta Incinerator in the City of Chester.

Delaware County's Municipal Waste Management Advisory Committee (DCSWA) is in the process of revising its ten-year waste management plan. Last month, members of the board of directors heard public comments on a report by the Zero Waste Associates (ZWA) on the total environmental costs of managing non-recyclable waste. Speakers at the hearing included community activists and students from Swarthmore College who overwhelmingly advocated for the County to end its shipment of waste to the Covanta Incinerator in Chester, PA.

According to the County's Sustainability Advisory Commission, "most of the non-recycled trash (370,000 tons/year) goes to the Covanta incinerator in Chester, with an additional 30,000 tons per year going to the Rolling Hills Landfill in Berks County." Delaware County owns the Berks County facility. If speakers at the December 2023 public hearing have anything to do with it, the landfill will soon be receiving the bulk of the county's solid waste.

"The bottom line with the plan is that incineration is more costly than landfilling," said Zulene Mayfield, the chairperson for Chester Citizens Concerned for Quality Living, (CRCQL).

Zero Waste Associates (ZWA), a California-based consulting group, reported that the human health and environmental costs associated with the incineration of the County's non-recyclable materials are $337 per ton compared to $144 per ton for using the Rolling Hills Landfill. When allowing for economic offsets for generated energy and recycling of heavy metals from the incinerator, the cost is still calculated at $234 per ton, well above the cost of landfilling the waste.

In 2021 the Pennsylvania Department of the Environment (DEP) granted approval to increase capacity of the Rolling Hills Landfill. According to a 2021 Reading Eagle article, "The DEP approval allows the landfill to add 8.8 million cubic yards of disposal volume and more than 10 years of waste disposal capacity to the landfill. Without the expansion, the landfill was expected to reach capacity by 2025."

Chester residents bear the brunt of the toxic fallout from the incinerator that includes particulate pollution, heavy metals, and dangerous chemicals including dioxins. A 2020 article by Karen Edelstein Incinerators: Dinosaurs in the World of Energy Generation, and published by Fractracker Alliance explains: "Dioxins are known to cause cancer, disrupt the endocrine and immune systems, and lead to reproductive and developmental problems. Dioxins are some of the most dangerous compounds produced from incineration. Compared with the air pollution from coal-burning power plants, dioxin concentrations produced from incineration may be up to 28 times as high."

According to the ZW report the American Lung Association estimated that across the County 60,000 people are at risk due to asthma, 31,280 for Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD), and 43,202 for cardiovascular disease related to poor air quality. "EJ Screen indicators confirm the target communities in the corridor fall in the 80th-100th percentiles for Air Toxics Cancer Risk and Air Toxics Respiratory Hazard in the US. The City of Chester ranks in the 86th -97th percentile for all 12 of the EPA EJ (Environmental Justice) Indexes, and both Darby and Trainer boroughs are above the 86th percentile for 10 of the 12."

The report also states that the Covanta incinerator's emission standards are grandfathered in under old guidelines and would not be permissible for a plant constructed today. Finally, the report highlights the issue of disparities in the host fees paid by the County. The White community where the landfill is located receives nearly double the amount of host fees compared to what it pays to the largely Black community of Chester, which hosts the more toxic Covanta Incinerator.

In 2022 the City of Chester and Delaware County renewed their contracts with the Covanta Incinerator for three years. A WHYY report quoted Elaine Schaefer, Delaware County Council member, saying that during the budgetary process of 2024, the County will make some changes based of the report's recommendations.

The waste from Delaware County currently shipped to the Covanta represents nearly one third of the total waste handled by the plant. The balance comes from Philadelphia and New York.

Erica Bauman, a CRCQL member and resident of Media said, "The people are speaking out today and have been in the past about the incinerator are aware that if Delaware County stopped sending their trash to the incinerator that this incinerator will still operate, but we are already fighting and working with communities to stop sending their trash to Chester. How does it look for a county that has the facts and knows that they are creating 23 times more health and environmental [impacts] to harm to their own people?"

Mayfield asked DCSWA members to act on the report's findings immediately.

So if you're not living near an incinerator, why did you read to this post? Please share!

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I lived near this area for many years and we always knew the associated odors but not the sources. I’m not surprised, but it’s long overdue that these inequities be addresses. Thanks for highlighting them.

Jan 16
Replying to

I hope Delaware County does the right thing as a first step!


I don't live near an incinerator, as far as I know. I read the article because you asked me to and I trust you as a writer. I think the better question to ask is how does the article make readers feel about waste incineration and how do they view the fact that the incinerator operates in poor, primarily African-American part of Chester. You could also ask if readers would be willing to take action on such a matter even though it's not in their neighborhood or city.

I think it's unconscionable that trash gets burned in an incinerator that cannot meet todays standards of such an operation. The incinerator should be shut down and dismantled. Unfortunately, the EPA was…

Jan 10
Replying to

Thank you! You're right. Those are better questions. This issue burns me because prior to the pandemic, I taught in Chester. The people of that community deserve better. A lot of us will be watching to see what changes are made in upcoming months. I expect the commission to do the right thing.

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