March 16 CRCQL Press Conference: Delco Times coverage
Protesters stage ‘die-in’ as Delaware County mulls over new contract with Covanta
By KATHLEEN E. CAREY | delcotimes.com
March 20, 2022 at 6:51 a.m.
MEDIA – More than 50 people gathered in the Delaware County Government Center courtyard Wednesday to stage a “die-in” to protest Delaware County’s use of the Covanta waste-to-steam facility in Chester as the Delaware County Solid Waste Authority is negotiating with the company for a new agreement.
“Shut it down! Shut it down!” were chanted by the attendants, as was “Do the right thing!”
Delaware County does not have the authority to close the incinerator. All licensing and permitting are through the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection.
Regardless, the activists wanted to send a message to county officials.
“We are not OK with this,” Chester resident Carol Kazeem said to large applause Wednesday. “We are not OK with this. We are not OK with anybody burning trash in our neighborhood, in our backyards and putting our seniors or our children’s health at risk. We are not OK with it. We, the residents, are not OK with it.”
Kazeem said the demonstrators were asking Delaware County Council to put pressure on the Solid Waste Authority to discontinue the county’s contract with Covanta. The contract expires April 30.
“It is not fair to our residents,” she boomed. “It is not fair to our residents. The same way you guys do not want it in your neighborhood burning. Do not do that there. Do not do that there.
“We will continue to keep fighting, continue to keep asking for justice until it’s out of there,” she continued. “That is what we are here for, that is what I am here for. I am here speaking as a parent for my children, for my grandparents, for my parents, for my neighbors, for my neighbors’ children, for my neighbors’ grandchildren. Do not bring any more trash into the city of Chester. We are not OK with it.”
Chester resident Kearni Warren of Energy Justice Network said they have continually asked for the end to incineration.
“However, our concerns and cries have continuously been ignored and reduced to straw man arguments,” she said. ” … The Solid Waste Authority board needs the money from Covanta which means they will continue to fund the Solid Waste Authority board by continuing to dump in Delaware County, specifically in Chester and on the backs and deaths of Chester residents.”
She said the activists want the county to cover the landfill expansion, transfer stations, recycling, composting facilities and other zero waste solutions. Delaware County owns and operates the Rolling Hills Landfill in Berks County, and has two transfer stations – one in Chester Township and another in Marple that are in need of much repair.
“We need the county to put up the money to pay for it so that Delaware County Solid Waste Authority board is no longer addicted to taking ash or other waste from outside of Delco,” Warren said.
During Wednesday’s county council meeting, Swarthmore College student Chris Folk asked council what is economically efficient.
“How much do Black and brown lives cost?” he asked, adding that American Rescue Plan Act funds are being spent to deprivatize the George W. Hill Correctional Facility but not on reducing the county’s reliance on incineration. “Why won’t you use these funds in a way that will actually reduce sickness that the most vulnerable face?”
Covanta officials, who declined to comment for this story, have consistently stated that their standards are beyond the minimum requirements set by DEP and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. They list their emissions on their website, https://www.covanta.com/where-we-are/our-facilities/delaware-valley, and note their commitment to Chester through the Chester Environmental Partnership. They also pay approximately $5 million annually to Chester in host fees, a number SWA officials said they’re open to increasing.
James McLaughlin, president of the SWA board, also attended Wednesday’s county council meeting.
“We recognize and accept our responsibility to our county for waste processing,” he said. “It’s our number one responsibility. We also recognize our concurrent responsibility to all of our community stakeholders on all fiscal, environmental, health, wellness and other measures. We have a large list of needs that need to be addressed by our authority.”
He said the SWA is working to finalize a contract with Covanta that provides the maximum flexibility for change within an appropriate time frame.
James Warner, interim CEO of the Solid Waste Authority, said a Zoom information meeting will be held 7 p.m. Tuesday, March 29.
“We plan to give an update and more of a description of where we’re at at that point in time with Covanta in regards to our negotiations,” he said, adding that the public will be welcome to make comments.
Warner explained the Solid Waste Authority’s situation.
“The mindset is the authority knows that we need to renegotiate and extend the contract,” he said. “The fact is the county generates 400,000 tons of disposable waste. We’re responsible for doing something with that. For 30 years, that something has been Covanta. To stop on a dime and put that 400,000 tons somewhere else Sunday morning is not possible. The contract that we end up with … will be less than three years.”
Warner is the retired CEO of the Lancaster County Solid Waste Management Authority and built that system into a national model, purchasing the financially distressed Harrisburg incinerator and turning it into the Susquehanna Resource Management Complex.
In addition to negotiating a contract with Covanta, the SWA is in the early stages of expanding the Rolling Hills landfill to give it 17 years more of viability. Warner said this $10 million phase will be completed in September.
After increasing fees this year, the SWA has stabilized and is able to pay for their operations, Warner added.
However, to pay for future landfill expansion phases and fix the transfer stations, he said they will have to issue some debt and most likely will have to approach the county to help them backstop it.
“Our landfill’s revenue is $17 million,” he said, adding that Covanta provides $9 million of that. “That is a substantial amount. For us to replace that overnight is impossible.”
And as the Delaware County Sustainability Commission updates the Municipal Solid Waste Management Plan, Warner underscored that zero waste is a plausible goal, it just needs to have goals set with time tables.
During a discussion about the 17-member Delaware County Solid Waste Authority, which she voted against, Delaware County Councilwoman Christine Reuther said she felt that council’s dialogue on the waste issue has been heavily tilted in one direction.
“I just want to take a balanced approach,” she said .”My view is that when you’re in a position of governing you have to balance a variety of considerations. You’ve gotta balance economic sustainability, environmental sustainability, public health impact and recognizing that if people can’t afford to get rid of their trash, they’re not going to get rid of it.”
At one point, Zulene Mayfield of Chester Resident Concerned for Quality Living said that one way to reduce trash would be to charge all residents across the board $200 a bag for trash.
Reuther spoke to the challenges inherent in the issue.
“No matter what Delaware County does with our trash, I do not believe that the incinerator … is going away,” she said. “I just don’t believe that’s going to happen.”
Delaware County’s trash is only about a third of the waste processed at the waste-to-steam facility. The rest comes from other locations including other counties Pennsylvania, New York, Oklahoma and Puerto Rico.
Delaware County Council has said that the interests of all the county’s residents, including and particularly the communities which live near polluting facilities – which historically have been disproportionately people of color – will be considered by the county, in making decisions which impact such facilities.
Swarthmore College activist Tyler White was among those at the die-in protest and at the county council meeting.
“The urgency of now is gone,” he said during the demonstration. “There is no time to debate regulatory policy of the past. Change it. There is no time to debate the cost of change when the cost is Black and brown bodies. Change it … This is not the responsibility of Chester to fight for their own lives. It is each and every one of us non-residents that contributes to them to having to fight at all.”