Environmental Justice Case Study: Toxic Waste in Chester, Pennsylvania

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Above image taken from Tiger Mapping Service, 1997.

The Problem

Since 1985, a Pittsburgh investment company known as Russell, Rea & Zappala (and now Gomulka), has continued to build several toxic and hazardous waste treatment facilities in the community of Chester, Pennsylvania. Located Southwest of Philadelphia in Delaware County, Chester is home to approximately 44,000 residents, most of which are African American and low income. Chester is also currently home to four toxic and hazardous waste treatment facilities, which residents claim are the underlying source of their recent health problems. The state government, however, has responded by claiming that a cause and effect relationship has not been determined, and consequently the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) continues to grant permits for the construction of more hazardous waste facilities in Chester.

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In the mid 1980's, the residents of Chester City, Pennsylvania had no idea that their community had been targeted and would later become home to numerous toxic and hazardous waste treatment facilities as the state's landfills neared capacity. Residents also had no idea how much their lives would change as state officials continued to grant additional permits for the construction of more waste treatment facilities.

Chester is currently home to four hazardous and municipal waste treatment facilities, including the nation's largest infectious medical waste treatment facility, the nation's fourth largest trash-to-steam incinerator, (a waste-water treatment plant which in turn, incinerates the hazardous resulting sludge), and currently under development, a processing incinerator to treat contaminated soil. For years, Chester residents have complained to the state that they are experiencing negative health effects as a result of the heavy pollution in their area generated by these and other surrounding facilities. The quality of life in Chester has seriously degraded as residents continuously complain of constant headaches, sore throats, skin disorders, and asthma. Property values in this community have fallen drastically as more residents report structural damages to their home which residents say is the result of dump trucks loaded with tons of trash rumbling down their streets on a daily basis. The toxic and hazardous waste facilities in Chester currently handle more than 67% of the county's total waste, and also harbor medical waste from five other states including Ohio, Virginia, Maryland, Delaware, New York, and New Jersey.

In 1994 the residents of Chester got the attention of the federal government, who turned this matter over to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The results of their six month cumulative risk assessment study found that Chester has the highest percentage of low-weight births in the state, nearly double the rate for the entire county, and a mortality and lung cancer rate that is 60% higher than the rest of Delaware County. The EPA also found that the children of Chester have the highest concentration of lead in their bloodstream relative to the children in the rest of the state, and has the highest infant mortality rate in the state. Also, the EPA found that many Chester residents are already in poor health which makes them more susceptible to the aggravating effects of pollution. While the findings of the EPA study supported the concerns Chester residents have had all along, the EPA, however, claimed to have no real power to make meaningful change in the Chester community and the state under the direction of the DEP continues to grant permits to RR&Z. The residents of Chester have come to rely on each other by forming numerous grass-roots organizations and pulling together what little resources and power they have to stop the environmental injustice currently taking place in Chester.

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Key Actors

Zulene Mayfield

Zulene Mayfield is chairperson of a grass-roots organization known as Chester Residents Concerned for Quality Living (CRCQL). This local, community based organization has been fighting for environmental justice in Chester for the past four years, and advocates a non-violent approach in combating this struggle which has been met by harassment and intimidation by the owners and operators of the facilities in Chester. Mayfield does not consider herself an environmental activist, but merely a resident who is fed up with the pollution, corruption, and injustice in the Chester community. CRCQL was formed in 1992 to deal with residents concerns about the increasing number of waste facilities being built in Chester, along with the horrendous odors, noise, air, water, and ground pollution which residents say is the underlying source of health problems that have plagued the neighborhood since the arrival of these facilities. Due to their lack of power and financial resources, residents of this low-income, minority community are being viewed as acceptable risks with low liability.

Campus Coalition Concerned with Chester

Another local grass-roots level organization calling for action against RR&Z and the DEP is the Campus Coalition Concerned with Chester (C-4) which is comprised of a network of schools throughout Pennsylvania and surrounding states coming together to fight for environmental justice in Chester. Members of this group have been instrumental in conjunction with the CRCQL in terms of informing those concerned with the situation in Chester via the internet and e-mail. This coalition was formed early this year through the College Weekend Retreat on Environmental Justice which took place at Swarthmore College and in Chester. The purpose of their organization is to assist the CRCQL in developing strategies to get more people (particularly students) involved in this struggle and participate in protests against RR&Z and the Department of Environmental Protection, which they refer to as the "Department of Emissions Permitting." They also develop campaigns to bring the issues in Chester to a statewide and national level.

SPEEC (Students Promoting Environmental Equality in Chester)

SPEEC is a local C-4 chapter which is responsible for spreading the word on the most up to date information regarding Chester and its residents. The primary method of communicating to those concerned with the environmental injustice in Chester is via the internet. The students at SPEEC commonly obtain articles written about Chester and by permission reprint them so that those interested can read about what other communities are hearing about the Chester community. SPEEC also updates participants about future events such the summer C-4 conference which took place in the summer of 95. For those unable to attend, SPEEC summarizes the conference's initial goals and which ones were met at the conference. In general, SPEEC acts as a focal point for information on the situation in Chester between the CRCQL and C-4.

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Chester City, Pennsylvania is a low-income, predominately black (65%) neighborhood comprised of roughly 44,000 people. The residents of this community make-up 8% of Delaware County's entire population, and has the highest percentage of minorities in the state. The median family income in Chester is 45% lower than in Delaware County, and the poverty rate is 25%, more than three-times the rate in the entire County. Chester has a median family income of $24, 893 which is the lowest in the state of Pennsylvania. It has the third highest percentage (32.1%) of children under the age of 18, and by far the highest number of people below the poverty line (>10,000) compared to Upper Darby township, who is second with 5,653. The Chester community also has the highest number of residents who are unemployed (2,236). Chester also has the third highest percentage of non-highschool graduates in the state, and only one-fourth of its residents have some college education. In terms of housing, Chester has roughly 16, 512 housing units, 14, 537 are currently occupied while 1, 975 are vacant. Of the total number of homes in Chester, 7,776 of them are owned outright by residents, and the median value of homes in Chester is $37, 800, by far the lowest in the state.

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Strategies Used

At the beginning of this struggle, residents were not organized and engaged in various tactics which required a great deal of effort, and the effects were minimal. For example, making phone calls and writing letters to the DEP complaining of the pollution billowing out of the RR&Z facilities and staging rallies and protests against the headquarters of RR&Z and the DEP proved to be ineffective, as peaceful protesters in the past have been hit by garbage trucks. Gathering signatures to oppose the construction of a biohazardous facility is another tactic that was used, but once again with little success.

In 1992, the formation of various grass-roots level organizations such as CRCQL and C-4 empowered residents in many ways. For one thing, it allowed residents to coordinate their ideas and efforts as a collective rather than as individuals with little organization, preparedness, or power. It allowed them to hold public hearings and statewide conferences, which resulted not only in getting more people from Chester involved, but from neighboring communities as well. Holding public hearings and conferences also allows individuals to pull together their ideas into forming long-term strategies such as educating the residents of Chester as to the aggravating effects pollution can have on one's health and how children in particular are especially at risk in Chester because of their vulnerable immune system.

One strategy that is currently used and could prove to be effective is the recruitment of concerned individuals via the internet, in which those interested in participating in this struggle can register their e-mail address with any of the key actor organizations mentioned earlier. Another strategy that has been adopted particularly by C-4 is college/public radio promotion of the situation in Chester. This has helped to get more people involved and in some cases, financial donations have been received by those who are unable to participate directly. Another strategy involves making people outside of Chester whose waste ends up in RR&Z facilities about the environmental injustice currently taking place in Chester. C-4 has brochures to distribute to the public since many in this low-income community do not have internet access.

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Perhaps the biggest step taken by the grass-roots organizations fighting both RR&Z and the DEP is the recent filing by the CRCQL of a federal lawsuit accusing them of "Environmental Racism." More specifically, the lawsuit claims discrimination under the Civil Rights Act of 1964 saying that despite being home to only 8% of the county's population, Chester currently handles more than 67% of the entire county's waste. The lawsuit also accuses the DEP of discrimination in terms of the disproportionate number of hazardous waste facilities located in black neighborhoods relative to white neighborhoods in the state of Pennsylvania. In Delaware County alone, black neighborhoods are currently home to eight commercial- waste sites, while predominately white neighborhoods have only three. The federal lawsuit against the DEP charging them with violation of the the 1964 Civil Rights Act is one of the most important actions taken by the CRCQL and the residents of Chester.

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In my opinion the best recommendation would be to shut-down these polluting facilities, however, this is unlikely to happen because politicians benefit at the expense of the residents of Chester. In the past, some groups in other communities have had success in their cases by attacking waste companies for ignoring environmental regulations. In Chester, however, state officials have confirmed that the RR&Z facilities meet with state ordinances even though residents continue to complain of constant headaches, ear infections, eye irritations, bronchitis, asthma, and fatigue. This is especially true for residents who have lived in Chester for more than five years. What the CRCQL and C-4 need to concentrate on in their lawsuit is trying to prove that the DEP disproportionately selected predominately black neighborhoods for the citing of toxic and hazardous wastes. Also, although the facilities run by RR&Z may comply with federal standards, the combining and accumulating effects of the pollution generated by these facilities should be reevaluated by an independent group or company which does not have any connections with the DEP or RR&Z. This, however, is easier said than done for a community that has relatively little power or financial resources.

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Contact Person/Information Sources

For more information regarding Chester, or if you would like to remain updated, participate, or become involved in this environmental struggle, you can contact any of the following people:

-- Zulene Mayfield, chairperson for Chester Residents Concerned for Quality Living (CRCQL) at 1-(610)-485-0763.

-- David Reese, representative of Campus Coalition Concerning Chester (C-4) at davidr@condor.sccs.swarthmore.edu

-- Erik Cole, representative of the National Wildlife Federation (NWF) at 1-800-433-2283 (*8 5468#) or e-mail at midatlan@nwf.org

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