Open Letter to EJ in PA Conference Organizers

[Note: this have been updated on 4/6 to reflect the last-minute addition of PECO/Exelon and Fox Rothschild as sponsors and that DEP, PERC, and Harrisburg University did not contribute monetarily to this event, despite being listed as “partners” which is a sponsorship level of $1,000.]

We call for accountability, transparency, and justice in what is being called an “Environmental Justice in Pennsylvania” Summit on April 6, 2021.

One would expect that such a summit would be conceived, planned, and led by environmental justice leaders in Pennsylvania. Instead, this conference is conceived and funded largely by corporate, governmental, non-profit, and academic entities that are long-time perpetrators of environmental racism and social injustice.

We call this out for the sham that it is, and urge that our demands below be met by Earth Day, April 22, 2021.

Who are the sponsors and organizers?

  • City of Harrisburg ($10,000)
  • Covanta ($5,000)
  • PECO Energy / Exelon ($5,000)
  • Fox Rothschild ($500)
  • Drexel University ($5,000)
  • The Forbes Funds ($5,000)
  • PennFuture ($5,000)
  • Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (staff support)
  • Pennsylvania Environmental Resource Consortium (a.k.a. Pennsylvania Green Colleges) (staff support)
  • Harrisburg University (tech support)

Some of the injustices perpetuated by these sponsors:

City of Harrisburg: Since 1972, the City of Harrisburg has been home to a trash incinerator and adjacent toxic ash dump close to a large public housing complex populated by low-income Black and Latinx community. This incinerator, owned and operated by the city and its Harrisburg Authority until 2013, was the nation’s largest source of dioxins, the most toxic chemicals known to science. An association representing the Indigenous peoples of the Arctic Circle wrote to the City of Harrisburg after a study shows the Harrisburg incinerator to be the #1 contributor to dioxin in their food chain, and was laughed off. The city ignored the regional association of Black clergy and a state EJ leader in 2003 who warned that rebuilding the incinerator would bankrupt the city, as happened eight years later.

Covanta – Covanta is the nation’s largest trash incineration corporation and operates five of the six incinerators in Pennsylvania, including the two in EJ communities of South Harrisburg and the City of Chester. The facility in Chester is the largest in the nation with the fewest pollution controls. Covanta’s incinerator in Montgomery County continues to operate despite routine malfunctions in recent years causing terrible odors and noise. Incineration is worse than direct landfilling and is dirtier than coal per unit of energy produced. In Chester, Covanta funds Horace Strand’s “Chester Environmental Partnership” which has repeatedly supported Covanta with awards and with letters supporting the burning of trash in Chester from New York City and Philadelphia.

PECO Energy / Exelon – Exelon is the largest electric utility in the United States and the owner of the largest number of nuclear power plants including the Limerick and Peach Bottom reactors that threaten and pollute our state while having sucked up billions in ratepayer subsidies. Nuclear power is arguably the most racist of energy industries. The greatest racial disparities of any energy or waste industry are experienced by Indigenous people who suffer from the uranium mining and high-level radioactive waste disposal schemes which target their lands. PECO also owns fossil fuel power plants that have long polluted Pennsylvania communities, including a power plant in Eddystone, right next to Chester City. PECO has refused to listen to grassroots pressure demanding PECO purchase 20% solar by 2025.

Fox Rothschild is a major law firm that represents a wide range of polluting industries.

PennFuture – Since its inception, PennFuture has routinely undermined grassroots environmental justice movements in the state by supporting corporate-friendly approaches. A shining example is their advocacy for the state’s Alternative Energy Portfolio Standard law, which most states call “Renewable Portfolio Standards,” mandating a certain amount of renewable energy be used in the state. PennFuture made our state the first to include three fossil fuels in an otherwise “renewable” energy mandate, which was bad enough for its inclusion of burning trash, trees, and toxic landfill gases as if they’re wind and solar power. This greenwashed the burning of waste coal (which makes normal coal look clean) at 16 facilities across the state and inspired proposals for four large new waste coal burners that communities had to fight. This law supported the two largest air polluters in the City of Chester: Covanta’s trash incinerator and Kimberly-Clark’s paper mill (which burned waste coal until just recently).

PA Department of Environmental Protection – DEP has earned its nicknames of “Don’t Expect Protection,” “Department of Emissions Permitting,” and “Destruction of the Environment by Politicians.” DEP is a weak enforcement agency and the enabler of corporate polluters statewide. We sued DEP for environmental racism, and if still legal to do so, would have cause to do so again and again. DEP’s “environmental justice” program has been a joke from the start. DEP rubber stamps pollution permits for the fracking industry, incinerators, power plants, landfills and more. DEP misrepresents the law by encouraging local governments not to use their rights to adopt stronger local clean air laws, claiming that such ordinances are not permitted. Access to DEP’s records on polluters is excessively challenging to obtain, even before file rooms were closed due to the pandemic. DEP sees polluters as “clients” and covers their tracks when challenged by impacted residents. As the outfit licensing polluters to pollute, with no measures to deny permits in EJ communities, DEP has no right to be organizing the EJ communities it harms.

Pennsylvania Green Colleges / Pennsylvania Environmental Resource Consortium – Three of the PERC’s four main sponsors are troubling. PERC is primarily sponsored by Sodexo, a catering company historically in bed with private prisons. They’ve long been the target of activist campaigns, as evidenced by Sourcewatch, and the American Friends Service CommitteeBrookfield Renewable Partners boasts a portfolio that includes 580 megawatts of biomass incineration projects. Burning trees and other biomass emits 50% more CO2 than burning coal per unit of energy, and is comparably dirty on other pollutants. NextEra Energy Solutions, another PERC sponsor, owns three nuclear power plants. See above points on PECO/Exelon about nuclear power’s EJ impacts. NextEra was also involved in the controversial biomass incineration proposal in a community of color in Hawaii where NextEra was sued for illegal conduct. In addition to its sponsors, a number of the university members of PERC have their own sordid histories with environmental injustice, notably, Penn State and Widener U. There is much internal work to do — and historic damage to undo — before any of these institutions can claim to be EJ champions.

Why would entities known for perpetrating environmental injustices run an EJ conference or start EJ Hubs? This event’s sponsors and planners do not have the moral authority to “strengthen, create, and connect regionally active EJ groups” or to “build an EJ network across Pennsylvania” as planned. You are not welcome to claim our identity or manage our side of the struggle.

Our Demands:

  1. Have grassroots activists in attendance read the 17 Principles of Environmental Justice and the Jemez Principles out loud at the start of the event and included these and the EJ Principles of Working Together in the info packet.
  2. Release the full budget for the event and any future planned activities.
  3. Share the full attendance list with all attendees who are not associated with sponsors or corporate polluters.
  4. Do not create and fund your own EJ Hubs. Grant the money that would go toward these hubs to grassroots and EJ groups across Pennsylvania that we will identify based on their work and need.
  5. Sponsors must clean up their acts:
    1. The City of Harrisburg must stop incinerating its waste.
    2. Covanta must close its Chester and Plymouth incinerators
    3. PECO/Exelon must commit to the demands to install 20% solar by 2025, and must stop lobbying for nuclear power subsidies.
    4. PennFuture must stop promoting market-based solutions and should advance bolder policies like New York’s Climate & Community Investment Act. PennFuture must back the strong positions of the grassroots in calling for a ban on fracking and ending toxic technologies, not simply trying to make them more palatable. PennFuture also owes it to the communities in PA harmed by PennFuture’s passage of PA’s Alternative Energy Portfolio Standard law which subsidizes trash and biomass incinerators, waste coal burners, and landfills, and must actively campaign to remove these subsidies.
    5. Pennsylvania Environmental Resource Consortium must cut ties with Sodexo, Brookfield Renewables and NextEra or use its relationships to pressure them to end their respective roles in private prisons, biomass incineration, and nuclear power.

Signed,

Zulene Mayfield
Chairperson
Chester Residents Concerned for Quality Living
Chester, PA

Mike Ewall, Esq.
Executive Director
Energy Justice Network
Philadelphia, PA

Lynn Robinson
Director
Neighbors Against the Gas Plants
Philadelphia, PA

Carol Hardeman, MBA, MPM
Hill District Consensus Group
Pittsburgh, PA

Bishop Dwayne Royster
Executive Director
POWER Climate Justice & Jobs Team
Southeastern & Central PA

Abhishek Viswanathan
Fossil Free Pitt Coalition
Pittsburgh, PA

Caleb Hettinger
Philadelphia, PA

Marta Guttenberg, MD
Philadelphia, PA


If you’d like to sign on to this letter, please email us with your name, your city, and, if applicable, your title and organization that you’re authorized to sign on behalf of with a link to your group’s website.