Can a handful of divided, volunteer advocates come together to fix Chester's pollution problem?

Photo by Gene Smirnov

Photo by Gene Smirnov

Winning the Battle, Losing the War

by Alex Vuocolo

Shelia Hyland looked up at the sky one evening last May and saw a mass of black smoke hovering above the city of Chester. The sight didn’t surprise her. Her house is just a half-block from the industrial waterfront, and reminders of the pollution problem are everywhere: the rumble of diesel-fueled trucks coming off the highway, the odors that sometimes blow in on the wind, the tint of the sky on a given evening. 

“I can’t even walk down there,” says Hyland, 68, looking toward the waterfront from her front porch. “I would like to walk, you know, for exercise, but I can’t because it takes my breath away. That’s how bad it is.”  

Situated 15 miles southwest of Philadelphia, in Delaware County, Chester has a 30 percent poverty rate and is over 75 percent black. The city of 34,000 also contains one of the largest waste incinerators in the country, a water treatment plant, two major chemical manufacturers and a paper factory. The waste incinerator, owned by Covanta, processes the majority of the waste produced in Delaware County and large portions from New Jersey, New York and Philadelphia. 

There is little buffer between industry and residential neighborhoods in Chester. The city is a narrow 4.8 square miles and wedged between the Delaware River and Interstate 95. Freight rail tracks, transmission lines and flight paths also band across the city. Hyland lives on 2nd and Edwards streets, one of a handful of blocks that touch the edge of the industrial waterfront. An overgrown asphalt lot is all that separates her street from the industrial zone. 

What all this means for public health is difficult to determine, given the number of facilities and the fact that many health problems are also related to social problems such as poverty and crime. But environmental health experts say that pollution has likely contributed to a number of public health effects: The city has a 24 percent higher rate of lung cancer, a 64 percent higher rate of ovarian cancer and more than triple the rate of asthma than the rest of Pennsylvania, according to data from the Southeastern Pennsylvania Household Health Survey.  

Hyland suffers from asthma—so do her two youngest children—but she has no intention of leaving her home of 30 years. She likes that the street is somewhat isolated. It separates her family from the gun violence that affects other parts of Chester.

“This is a nice block,” she says. “We don’t have crime and stuff down here.” 

But it’s gotten harder in recent years for Hyland to ignore the problem. Last November, she spent a night in the emergency room because of an asthma attack so intense she thought it was a heart attack. That same evening she learned that a friend who lives a few blocks away was also in the emergency room for an asthma attack.

“It’s just amazing how both of us can end up in the hospital because we can’t breathe,” she says.

For Hyland, pollution is something you experience firsthand. It’s not some invisible threat or debate about the fate of the ice caps. It’s sensory: You can smell it, see it, feel it deep in your chest.  

As a result, a number of engaged Chester residents have embraced the idea of environmental justice—the concept, popularized in the 1980s, that low-income, often minority groups are most affected by pollution and require special attention. In the 1990s, the idea swept into Chester through a grassroots movement that would become a national example of how a community can rise up to defend itself against polluters.  

But a lot has changed in 25 years. With Chester’s economy still ravaged by unemployment and poverty, city leaders are reluctant to work against job creators of any kind, even if they happen to be polluters. This has left local activists to keep the pressure on industries. 

But Hyland’s own more recent experiences with activism have left her even more disillusioned than before. Neither of the city’s two main environmental groups, in her view, represent her needs or are serious about real change. “They don’t care about us,” she says. 

The groups also fundamentally disagree with one another. The Chester Environmental Partnership, which is run out of a local church, maintains that collaborating with polluters is essential to making progress. Chester Environmental Justice Network, meanwhile, led by an environmental advocate with roots in Bucks County, maintains that aggressive activism is the only ethical and effective way to fight pollution. 

The invasion
On a Monday morning in early April 1993, Chester residents carrying handmade signs reading, “We Deserve Clean Air” and “Save Chester, Stop the Incinerator” gathered in front of the county government building in the borough of Media. The protesters, organized by a group called Chester Residents Concerned for Quality Living (CRCQL), were rallying against what was then the Westinghouse waste-to-energy plant. The plant, built two years earlier on the waterfront, had flooded the city with truck traffic and stoked fears of air pollution among residents. 

The Rev. Horace Strand, an early organizer for CRCQL, says the issue came to his attention after members of his congregation started complaining about increased truck traffic around the plant.

“I learned about people’s foundations cracking, the dust, the noise, the rodents and all these other activities that came as a result of being invaded by solid waste,” he says.

Beginning in the early 1980s, Chester attempted to recover from its post-industrial decline by welcoming waste facilities into the city. With the support of city and county officials, the Westinghouse incinerator, the DELCORA water treatment plant and an infectious medical waste autoclave, among others, had opened on the waterfront. For those living near the waterfront, it felt like an invasion. 

“All they’re going to do is be successful in driving away people like me who have the ability to stay here, to pay the taxes, to buy the homes,” said Zulene Mayfield, founder of CRCQL, in the 1996 documentary “Laid to Waste.”

Activists like Mayfield and Strand took a decidedly confrontational approach: They blocked trucks from entering the Westinghouse plant. They marched from the county seat back to Chester. They brought giant inflatable rats, Philadelphia labor-union-style, to City Council meetings. 

“At that time, that’s what was necessary,” says Samantha Phillips-Beers of EPA Region 3, who provided legal counsel to CRCQL in the 1990s. “It was sort of a wake-up call.” 

 The protests did eventually lead to outside help. In 1996, Jerry Balter, an attorney for the nonprofit Philadelphia Public Interest Law Center, helped CRCQL bring a lawsuit against the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Justice. The suit made the claim, which was novel at the time, that the agency had violated the civil rights of Chester citizens by issuing so many permits for waste facilities in such a small area. The suit, though eventually declared moot by the U.S. Supreme Court, was followed by a drop-off in new permits. “We stopped the clustering effect,” Strand says.

With a de facto legal victory under its belt, CRCQL had to decide whether it would keep the pressure on or figure out how to coexist with the industries already in the city. Mayfield told a reporter at the time that the lawsuit changed nothing.  

Strand, meanwhile, had other ideas.

A tactical shift
Chester was beginning to change in the early 2000s. State and federal agencies had a closer eye on the city, and the influx of new waste facilities had slowed down. In 1998, the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) denied a permit to a demolition waste transfer station. A few years after that, the agency denied paper manufacturer Kimberly-Clark a permit to burn tires at its facility. 

Strand felt that the time for aggressive activism was over. Whatever came next would have to look very different, he thought at the time. “I think CRCQL went its way, I went my way,” he says. 

Mayfield kept CRCQL going for a few more years, but eventually she left the city and the movement behind (as she suggested she might in the 1996 documentary). Without her leading the group, CRCQL lost its momentum and faded out of existence. 

After stepping out of the movement himself for a few years, Strand returned to form the Chester Environmental Partnership in 2005. The idea behind the new group was to encourage government, industry, academia and advocates to work together.  

“My approach to environmental justice is you scream as loud as you can until you get attention. Then once you get attention, you sit down and try to work it out with the people you’re hollerin’ at,” Strand says. “Other people are more radical. They take great pleasure in hollering, screaming, cussing and, you know, just being a nuisance.”

Today the CEP counts the University of Pennsylvania, Widener University, Crozer-Chester Medical Center, the DELCORA water treatment plant and the Covanta (formerly Westinghouse) waste-to-energy plant among its members. The organization meets every other month and is the main point of contact in the city for state and federal environmental agencies.

Mike Ewall, who had worked in Chester as an activist since the 1990s but grew up in Bucks County, joined CEP during its early years. His relationship with Strand soon splintered, though, due to ideological differences. Ewall says he was frustrated by the lack of progress and by how Strand ran the meetings. They were held at 10 a.m. on weekdays, and he thought they should be held at night to attract more residents. 

“I’ve worked with many dozens of grassroots groups,” says Ewall, who currently runs ActionPA, a statewide environmental justice group. “This is not one of them. This is like a corporate-government-clergy collaboration that gets updates on things but is not a group that is going to rail against incinerators.”

After leaving CEP in 2007, Ewall formed the Delco Environmental Justice Network, later renamed the Chester Environmental Justice Network—a local branch of a national group called the Energy Justice Network. This new group took the tack that polluters can’t be negotiated with. They can only be out-organized. 

“Unless you can make them do something by law, it’s not going to happen,” says Frances Whittington, a longtime resident and political activist who joined the group early on.  

Breaking ranks
For a while, the two groups worked separately but not at cross-purposes. Then, in the summer of 2014, Covanta requested a permit to construct a 15,000-square-foot rail box for handling trash sent via rail from New York City. The company had just signed a 30-year contract with the city, and it touted the expansion as a more efficient way to handle the waste coming down from New York. 

Strand publicly endorsed the plan. Ewall helped organize a citywide movement against it. Between June and August, City Council and planning committee meetings drew hundreds of residents. Many of them, such as Hyland, were speaking out against the pollution problem for the first time. 

Strand argued that the facility could only handle as much waste as permitted by the state. The expansion, he says, wouldn’t change that. Other members of the CEP agreed. 

“We felt that there was probably no increase in emissions to the Chester community,” says Dr. Marilyn Howarth, an occupational physician at the Center of Excellence in Environmental Toxicology, which is federally funded to research the relationship between the environment and health.  

Whether it would lead to an increase or not, Ewall’s main problem with the expansion was that it represented a long-term investment in a plant that he believed needed to be phased out entirely. In a presentation to City Council that summer, he stressed that incinerators are dangerous in and of themselves, making any investment in them a backstep. The goal is to render the plant obsolete, he says, by stopping expansions and eventually cutting off the flow of waste.  

“You don’t starve them by allowing further expansion,” Ewall says. “You starve them by doing zero waste in the city and ultimately in the country.”

City Council approved the expansion despite the public outcry, citing legal pressure from Covanta. 

“We can all vote no,” Councilman William A. Jacobs told The Philadelphia Inquirer soon after the decision, “but then they would win later on in court, wasting taxpayers’ money.”

The debate, nonetheless, highlighted the deep rift among the city’s environmental advocates. As many would learn for the first time in the summer of 2014, CEP receives $10,000 annually from Covanta. The grant, which was arranged by the DEP and began in 2006, is part of a larger community benefit agreement that also funds scholarships and a Little League program. The $10,000 portion that goes to CEP is meant to fund “administration needs,” according to a letter from Covanta to Strand and obtained by Grid.

For some residents, the money was further evidence that Strand was unable to honestly represent the people of Chester on environmental justice issues.

“I don’t deal with Strand,” Hyland says. “Why would I deal with somebody that is getting money from the trash-and-steam plant and not even putting it back into the community?”

Strand is well aware of his critics, but stands by his approach to advocacy. “People have a mindset that if you take money from an industry that you are monitoring,  that compromises you,” he says. “I’ve been doing this for 30-something years, almost, in this community, and we have a track record that speaks for itself. People have been helped. Lives are being changed. The clustering has stopped.”

Given that the group operates within Strand’s church, it’s hard to determine what counts as “administrative needs” for the CEP specifically. Strand says he doesn’t understand why people are so concerned about it. While Strand has difficulty explaining how the money is used, other than saying it goes toward meetings, he has continued to work on specific issues relevant to the community.

One success touted by Strand is the work his organization did to persuade the DEP to rescind a permit given to DELCORA for processing wastewater from hydraulic fracturing, which is known to contain a number of hazardous chemicals. He attributes this success to CEP’s close relationship with regulators and with DELCORA itself. 

“We protested, we fought that,” says Strand. “And we got the state of Pennsylvania to do something that they never did before. They rescinded a permit. And [they] made a public apology as a result of our protest.”

The EPA’s Phillips-Beers says, “Rev. Strand has a very strong vision for his community, and he is not going to give up. And I applaud that.”

For Phillips-Beers, the specifics of how Chester deals with its pollution problem comes down to what the community wants.

“Communities have a right of self-determination. It’s not my job to tell them what tack to take,” she says. “There are community leaders that are elected and community leaders that are empowered, and Rev. Strand is an empowered community leader. He lives, sleeps and breathes his community’s health. That community stands behind him, and it’s my job to see what, if anything, he needs from me as he formulates his plans going forward.”

For Chester Environmental Justice Network, however, Strand’s close relationship with regulators and government officials is part of the problem. 

They take the stance that Strand, in effect, monopolizes who gets to represent the community on environmental issues. 

“We haven’t seen any real change with Rev. Strand’s organizations,” Whittington says, and yet, she adds, regulators and city officials put more stock in his opinion than other groups.

The stakes
But tactics (and ethics, for that matter) aren’t the only thing Chester environmental advocates disagree on. There is a fundamental difference in opinion on what the actual stakes are for residents, and what can reasonably be done to help them. Few residents fully understand the science linking environmental health with public health. Instead, many come to their conclusions through anecdotes shared between neighbors and friends, their own experiences, and what they see as the physical evidence all around them.

Carol Burnett, a resident since the 1980s, experienced her own visceral run-in with pollution a few years ago. While walking along the edge of the industrial area, giving what she called a “toxic tour” to some other activists, she began to experience a physical reaction. Her face burned. She lost her voice. 

“Within two or three weeks, I developed walking pneumonia in my left lung for the first time—the first and last time,” she says. “I had to go on a breathing machine, antibiotics and an albuterol inhaler”

Whether the pneumonia was ultimately caused by pollution isn’t even a question for Burnett. The correlation seem entirely clear to her. Yet figuring out a clear line of cause and effect between the environment and health is inherently difficult.

“There’s lots of different emissions,” says Dr. Howarth. “It’s very difficult, if not impossible, to parse out health impacts to any one of these exposures. It’s much more likely that these exposures combine and together cause these health impacts.”

She adds that social factors—such as poverty, crime and housing quality—are also significant contributors to health. Home maintenance problems, such as dust or moisture, can cause or aggravate asthma.  

Strand has argued that the pollution is more of a regional problem.
He points out that the city is situated within a larger industrial corridor that stretches from Wilmington, Delaware, to Southwest Philadelphia, an area identified by the American Lung Association as a “cancer belt.”

This makes the question of legality complicated as well. In certain cases, polluters are directly breaking the law in Chester. In 2015, for example, the DEP fined PQ Corp., a chemical manufacturer located on the waterfront, $1.7 million for exceeding set limits on carbon monoxide and nitrogen oxides. Both are identified as criteria pollutants (those that cause the most harm) by the EPA. The CEP also sent a letter to the DEP that this violation should be considered before renewing the corporation’s permit. 

Many facilities within Chester, however, do operate within the law, leaving the city without legal recourse.  

“If the problem is that you already have too many permits that are putting too much stuff out, there isn’t much you can do, currently, as I understand the law,” says Michael Churchill of the Public Interest Law Center. “You can keep out new polluters, and I think we’ve been pretty successful in that regard. But it doesn’t do much about the existing pollutants that people are living with.” 

This is why Chester Environmental Justice Network, according to Ewall, has stressed stopping expansions. It’s a way for the community to intervene and, to some extent, hobble polluters, if not entirely shut them down. Yet, as the “trash train” debate in 2014 showed, even this is difficult when up against corporations with the power to use the courts for themselves.

Since 2014, Ewall has moved on to other efforts around the state.

“It’s died down to some volunteers who care about things but don’t really have the time to fully invest in it,” Ewall says. 

For Burnett and Whittington, losing Ewall left them without direction. “He was the catalyst. He was the fountain of information. We were learning from him about activism,” Whittington says. After he left, she adds, “we kind of lost our momentum because we really didn’t have the leadership anymore.”

Strand, too, has talked about moving on. He says he is currently looking for a younger generation to replace him. 

What’s next for Chester?
Though the two groups may disagree on how to deal with corporations in particular, members of both Chester Environmental Justice Network and the CEP agree that some kind of multifaceted approach is necessary.

“I would like to see the people of Chester have a substantial drop in their total exposure,” Dr. Howarth says. For her, that means working within the legal realm, as well as with regulatory agencies and the companies themselves.

That kind of big-picture approach can be hard to see while on the ground, however, especially when the threat feels so urgent. 

One of the CEP’s first initiatives after it formed was to try to help residents move away from 2nd Street and Highland Avenue, which is located directly above the Covanta plant and serves as an entry point for trucks. The block had long been considered at the frontline of the city’s pollution problem. 

But as Strand soon found out, many of the residents were unwilling to simply uproot their lives. “[The initiative] has not materialized, because the residents have mixed emotions there,” he says. “Some are content to live there. Some are not.”

Ewall, who met with residents from the block, found a similar story. Many had bought their homes, and at least one resident had been forced out by eminent domain in the past and was unwilling to go through displacement again. 

For Hyland, who lives just a few blocks from Highland Avenue, moving out isn’t an option, either. Instead she’d like to see the city come together and fight for itself. 

“You don’t have to like people,” she says. “But if you got a cause, you got to work together. And the cause here is that people are dying.”