Chester residents raise environmental racism concerns over Covanta incinerator

Covanta has recently posted some daily emissions data on its website. Pushing back on negative claims, the company says the contention that it is one of the largest polluters in the region are untrue.

The 2019 study from researchers at The New School found that Covanta’s facility in Chester emits more particulate matter than any other similar facility in the country.

Particulate matter, also known as PM, consists of small inhalable particles that can be found in the air around places such as construction sites and smoke stacks. While it can vary in size, at 2.5 micrometers particulate matter can be particularly harmful because it can get deeper into the lungs.

The Covanta plant in Chester also has “a long history of emitting high amounts of PM 2.5, and we know that this community is a predominantly low-income, predominantly Black community with high rates of asthma, and incinerators like this — it’s just a dirty facility, and it contributes to the air pollution in this community,” said Adrienne Perovich, assistant director at the Tishman Environment Design Center at The New School and one of the researchers behind the 2019 study.

“We’re particularly worried about PM or particulate matter right now because we know, based on a Harvard study, that increased exposure to this pollutant increases your risk of death from COVID-19, in addition to like, long scientific-based knowledge knowing that PM contributes to heart disease and lung disease and asthma,” Perovich said.

A 2017 data set from the Environmental Protection Agency’s National Emissions Inventory consistently placed Delaware Valley Resource Recovery Facility as one of the top three or four polluters in the area, usually behind Philadelphia International Airport, according to Mike Ewall, founder and executive director of the Energy Justice Network, who organized the data’s spreadsheets.

The Covanta incinerator isn’t alone as one of the region’s major polluters, according to the 2017 EPA data and 2019 Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection data that Ewall organized.

Monroe Energy’s Trainer Refinery is also high on the list, as well as Kimberly Clark Corp.’s Chester mill, which recently switched from coal to natural gas.

Because Chester Residents Concerned for Quality Living is one of the Energy Justice Network’s member organizations, Ewall has publicly sparred with Covanta since it first popped up on his radar in 1994.

Growing up in Bucks County, he said, he had his own run-in with an incinerator planned for his area. He has since dedicated a large part of his life to helping communities fight off similar facilities.

“There’s just a lot of misinformation, and I’m sure Covanta says the same thing,” Ewall said.

Residents of Chester, Pa. who live near the Convanta incinerator a waste-to-energy facility that burns trash from Delaware County, Philadelphia, New York City, and others, can also see the Marcus Hook refinery from 2nd Street that runs along the Delaware River waterfront. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Covanta has countered claims of pollution by citing the fact that its facility operates 96% below federally regulated emission standards. It also points to vehicles and other “mobile sources” as the main offender.

Regan, the company’s senior communications director, maintained that “these plants don’t pose significant health risks at all.”

Sintana Vergara, an assistant professor in the Department of Environmental Resources Engineering at Humboldt State University in California, studies the use of residual resources like solid waste as a resource. She said that though she can’t speak to the specifics of Covanta’s claim without all the numbers, she would be skeptical of a “black and white” statement on safety from Covanta.

Because incineration, at its heart, is combustion, Vergara said that even though these facilities are able to capture a lot of toxic emissions, such as carbon monoxide, some are still released into the atmosphere.

“I do think that there are two issues here, though. So one is the fact that, of course, incineration is going to produce some air pollution, even with the highest control technologies, some pollution is going to be produced,” Vergara said. “But I think the second issue … is public perception and acceptance of a technology like this. So in the United States, we have a very long history of siting dirty power plants and waste facilities in communities of color, in low-income communities, who are bearing the risks of these facilities without necessarily sharing in any of the benefits.”

Because in the past such facilities were so bad at polluting and posed such health risks, Vergara said, no matter how many improvements are made, they will have a hard time winning people over.

But in addition, she said, PM 2.5 has been a primary suspect affecting communities of color. She pointed to an April 2021 study published in Science Advances that shows that communities of color are disproportionately affected by it.

“If you look across the country and you measure air quality, what people are actually breathing in, people of color breathe worse air,” Vergara said.

Though health risks likely play a factor in the Chester community’s opposition, Vergara said, studies show that concepts of procedural and distributive justice may also be playing a part.

“So if people felt like there was procedural justice, meaning that the process was fair, they got a say into the siting of the facility or where it would be or what it would be,” Vergara said. “That helped predict how people felt about it, and also what’s called distributive justice. So feeling like the community where it was sited actually got some benefits, as well as the cost from the siting of that facility.”

Covanta’s Regan said the company is aware of environmental justice concerns and is working on solutions.

“We established a community outreach environmental justice policy. We were one of the first companies in the United States … through our work in Chester, and with an organization called the Chester Environmental Partnership,” he said, citing the support of Chester city officials.