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 Committee. Brookfield 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.


Zulene Mayfield
Chester Residents Concerned for Quality Living
Chester, PA

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

Lynn Robinson
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.

Dismantling of the Chester-Upland Public School System “where segregation is admittedly a fact but not a policy.”

MUST READ!!! A for-profit charter school is trying to privatize the whole system after gutting the district financially over the years. Chester's education and health are not for sale! This is too much for one city to bear.

Quotes from article: "If there was not money in this," one advocate told me, "none of these carpetbaggers would be here. There’s money in poverty."

"When a district is segregated, abandoned, underfunded, and deprived of resources, it suffers. And when the state, rather than aiding it, allows it to be picked over and fed upon by private for-profit businesses, it suffers even more, creating the possibility of a community that is no longer able to fulfil the promise of a free public education for all of its children. Chester Upland seems less likely to have a happy ending and more likely to end as a tragic cautionary tale. Pennsylvania’s students deserve better."

PA Bill passed that gives the green light to “plastic-to-energy” facilities

Last month, Gov. Wolf signed a new law in PA laying out regulation for "advanced recycling" also known as chemical recycling. Yet another move in the industry playbook that puts profits over the health of people. The bill gives the green light to a new polluting "plastic to energy" facilities that won't be regulated as a solid waste facility, but rather as a manufacturer, meaning they do not have to abide by the same regulations and emission standards as other waste incinerators.

Burning plastic as fuel is taking us further into fossil fuel direction - instead of confronting the plastic crisis and advocating to move away from single-use. PennFuture and Clean Air Council both tried to stop the legislation. We can barely get plastic bag bans in effect - meanwhile industry executives can cook up a business idea under the guise that they are helping to recycle plastic, a process which will emit toxic pollutants with little to no regulation, and lobby to get a bill passed that removes environmental regulation hurdles, lickety-split!


More info on this and other false solutions to plastics-


“United Shades of America” docuseries sheds light on lead pollution and Covanta incinerator

Check out the "Toxic America" episode of CNN's docuseries "United Shades of America" hosted by Kamau Bell. The final episode of Season 4 aired in 2019 examines the effects of industrial waste pollution in Chester, Delaware County, and lead poisoning in neighboring Philadelphia. Featuring our own Zulene Mayfield.

United Shades of America - CNN

Chester plant slapped with $750K fine for years of air quality violations- July 30, 2019


The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection has fined PQ Corp., a global manufacturer of materials and chemicals, $750,000 for air quality and other violations at a large Chester facility it operates.

PQ, based in Malvern, owns a 173,000-square-foot plant on West Front Street, where the DEP says emissions exceeded allowances for nitrogen oxides and carbon monoxide at various times from 2014 to 2018.

The facility produces sodium silicate, a chemical compound derived from sand and soda ash. Sodium silicate is used in a wide variety of products, including hair colorings, cleaners, and water treatment systems.

The DEP also found that the company failed to provide records and data required as part of its air quality permit to operate the facility. The company is required to monitor emissions, but sometimes failed to submit reports on time.ADVERTISEMENT

“This penalty reinforces how important it is for companies to accurately control, track, and report their emissions," DEP Southeast Regional Director Pat Patterson said in a statement. "Failure to comply with environmental regulations is not acceptable to the department. Collecting penalties and fines is important, but bringing polluters into compliance as quickly as possible is the ultimate goal towards protecting the people and environment of the commonwealth.”

The company issued a statement saying it agreed to pay the penalty.

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“During the past year, PQ has continued to make progress in reducing its air emissions and improving operating and maintenance practices at the Chester facility,” said the statement. “These include creating a process improvement team, rebuilding the existing furnace, and putting measures in place which allow the plant to operate more efficiently and effectively.”

Chester City is eligible to receive a portion of the penalty, which can be used for projects designed to reduce pollution or for parks, recreation, trails, or open space.

Moment of reckoning: US cities burn recyclables after China bans imports- Feb. 21, 2019

Activists Mike Ewall, left, and Zulene Mayfield stand in front of the Covanta incinerator in Chester, Pennsylvania. The incinerator brings in garbage from New York, Ohio and other states.
 Activists Mike Ewall, left, and Zulene Mayfield stand in front of the Covanta incinerator in Chester, Pennsylvania. The incinerator brings in garbage from New York, Ohio and other states. Photograph: Hannah Yoon/The Guardian


Residents of cities like Chester, outside Philadelphia, fear a rise in pollution from incinerators after China’s recycling ban. By Oliver Milman

The conscientious citizens of Philadelphia continue to put their pizza boxes, plastic bottles, yoghurt containers and other items into recycling bins.

But in the past three months, half of these recyclableshave been loaded on to trucks, taken to a hulking incineration facility and burned, according to the city’s government.

It’s a situation being replicated across the US as cities struggle to adapt to a recent ban by China on the import of items intended for reuse.

The loss of this overseas dumping ground means that plastics, paper and glass set aside for recycling by Americans is being stuffed into domestic landfills or is simply burned in vast volumes. This new reality risks an increase ofplumes of toxic pollution that threaten the largely black and Latino communities who live near heavy industry and dumping sites in the US.

About 200 tons of recycling material is sent to the huge Covanta incinerator in Chester City, Pennsylvania, just outside Philadelphia, every day since China’s import ban came into practice last year, the company says.

“People want to do the right thing by recycling but they have no idea where it goes and who it impacts,” said Zulene Mayfield, who was born and raised in Chester and now spearheads a community group against the incinerator, called Chester Residents Concerned for Quality Living.

“People in Chester feel hopeless – all they want is for their kids to get out, escape. Why should we be expendable? Why should this place have to be burdened by people’s trash and shit?”

Some experts worry that burning plastic recycling will create a new fog of dioxins that will worsen an already alarming health situation in Chester. Nearly four in 10 children in the city have asthma, while the rate of ovarian cancer is 64% higher than the rest of Pennsylvania and lung cancer rates are 24% higher, according to state health statistics.

The dilemma with what to do with items earmarked for recycling is playing out across the US. The country generates more than 250m tons of waste a year, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), with about a third of this recycled and composted.