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Chester Residents Want a Better Quality of Life for the Future

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Photos by Tessa Marie Images

Thanks to a group of committed activists and developers, there may be a light at the end of the tunnel for the troubled Delaware County city, if it isn’t too late.

chester resident

“Politics and pollution are strangling the life out of my city. Who wants to be knowingly poisoned to death?”—Zulene Mayfield, Chester Residents Concerned for Quality Living

Zulene Mayfield grew up in Chester with the notion that there was a cancer gene in her family. She’d never really thought about the outdoor fun she had as a child between the two sets of railroad tracks at Engle and West Front streets, real estate reserved for the city’s growing Black population. They’d fill baggies with powder, scooping it up in handfuls. Sometimes it was white, sometimes green, sometimes pink. The kids would knot the bags, then throw them at each other until they split open. “It wasn’t good,” says Mayfield, who now heads Chester Residents Concerned for Quality Living. “It dried our mouths and eyes and was full of pollutants and carcinogens with all these names. Half that shit I can’t even pronounce.”

Chester’s narrow streets are just off I-95, which handles 185,000 vehicles daily. The main strip and its tributaries are a diagram of dilapidation, littered with abandoned lots, barbed-wire fences, waste-treatment and power plants, and manufacturing facilities. A small park celebrates where William Penn landed more than three centuries ago. These days, it’s hard to believe that Chester was once a gem of civilization and industrialization.

A manufacturing hub a century ago, Delaware County’s lone city lost a third of its jobs as businesses moved elsewhere and wealthier residents fled to the suburbs. About 66,000 people lived there in 1950. Today, it’s about half that many. Consistently named among the country’s most dangerous cities, Chester has a crime rate of 44 per 1,000 residents, one of the highest in America compared to communities of all sizes.

This past year, the neighboring Chester County Intermediate Unit took over the school district, and the city was entered into a state-mandated “receivership” seizure aimed at restoring its solvency. Post-employment obligations and other unfunded liabilities are the biggest financial obstacle.

Mayfield owns a rowhome in Chester across from Covanta, the world’s largest waste-to-energy provider. There’s also the nearby DELCORA (Delaware County Regional Water Authority) water-sewage-sludge operation, paper manufacturer Kimberly-Clark and the PQ Corporation chemical-materials company. Combine the exposures, and you have a health hazard for residents. Asthma, birth defects, infant mortality, strokes, heart disease and cancer rates are abnormally high in Chester. Life expectancy is 69, nine years below the national average.

Mayfield calls it “the prostitution of pollution.” “Who wants to be knowingly poisoned to death?” she poses. “But it’s also become my burden, because I know. It angers me that people live in this town and don’t know. But there’s also an empathetic burden to let them know. Then, if they don’t make a decision or take a side, it’s on them. Politics and pollution are strangling the life out of my city.”

Chester is an environmental justice zone, a designation for heavy industrial-residential areas. With Mayfield’s organization leading the charge, the city sued the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection in federal court in 1998 for violating the Civil Rights Act. The lawsuit contended that, while Chester has 8 percent of Delaware County’s total population, it houses 60 percent of its waste facilities. The fight went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, where it was rendered moot and dismissed.

Within this bleak backdrop, a gentrification team continues to redevelop Chester’s riverfront. But there’s a perception problem, paired with an identity crisis. One urban sociologist describes two non-communicative Chesters: the waterfront developers (teamed with city officials) and the residents. The positives—Subaru Park, home to the Philadelphia Union pro soccer team, and Harrah’s Philadelphia Casino & Racetrack—are branded Philadelphia. The negatives—Chester State Correctional Institution—are attributed to Chester. Is it too late to clean up the mess?

“It can be really frustrating, but pollution isn’t always illegal, and often how a polluting industry operates is legal. They’re legally polluting because they have a permit.”—Melissa Muroff, Delaware County Assistant DA

Mike Ewall and Zulene Mayfield are arguably the king and queen of Chester’s environmental justice movement. “It’s more race than class,” says Ewall, the founder and executive director of the Energy Justice Network in Philadelphia. “If not, why would the Chester Residents Concerned for Quality Living office twice have been a white supremacist target? It’s the densely urban, biggest and dirtiest cities where these giant polluting facilities are clustered. I’m not saying, ‘Don’t put it in Chester —put it on the Main Line.’ That’s not right, either. I don’t want this in anyone’s backyard.”

Annually, Covanta burns 1.2 million tons of municipal waste in Chester, where its facility is among the largest of 41 worldwide (with four more under construction). “The story for us is continued improvement, though we get it,” says James Regan, Covanta’s senior director of corporate communications. “We’re not naive to where our facilities are located, and the concerns of residents are valid. We only ask that we get a fair shake. We’re not a racist company that targets low-income areas. We didn’t site [the Chester] facility, but there are a lot of reasons for such urban locations—infrastructure, access to water sources and highways. But what gets continued is the notion perpetuated by our opponents that all our facilities are located in low-income, color-targeted areas—and that’s just nonsense.”

Regan says Covanta is doing everything in accordance with permits and regulations, while lessening emission impacts and conscientiously engaging with the community. In 2011, Covanta formulated an environmental justice policy that includes voluntary support of such programs. It’s also offered job-training apprenticeships through the Chester Environmental Partnership. “Collaboration is better than opposition,” Regan says, adding that Ewall and Mayfield spread misinformation. “Their ultimate goal is to shut down our facility and to say landfilling is better. That’s not even close to accurate— something the scientific world has said time and again. We’re not anywhere close to zero waste as a society. Right now, these plants are the best way to get rid of waste.”

chester resident

At Kimberly-Clark, coal-fired operations have been replaced with natural gas. Meanwhile, Covanta has worked with DELCORA, winning a joint award for the reuse of affluent waste for its cooling tower. This saves 1.3 million gallons of drinking water a day.

But there’s still reason for vigilance. Two years ago, PQ Corporation was fined $750,000 for air-quality violations as part of a DEP settlement.

When Delaware County flushes its toilets, 50 percent of the waste goes to Chester (the rest goes to Philadelphia). “Now that Delaware County Council is sensitive to environmental racism, it realizes it’s doubly wrong for half the county’s sludge to come here,” says Mike Ewall.

At 47, Ewall has worked to get 50 environmental groups off the ground. He’s belonged to twice that number, and he actively maintains content across 10 or so websites. “There’s just a lot of people who care right now,” he says.

Ideally, Ewall wants that fight to resonate in Chester. “I don’t live in Chester or Delaware County, and I’m not a white savior. But it’s my responsibility to help take the foot off the neck of the people in Chester,” he says. “I recognize that it’s my fight, too.”

chester resident

“It’s the densely urban, biggest and dirtiest cities where these giant polluting facilities are clustered. I’m not saying, “Don’t put it in Chester—put it on the Main Line.’ That’s not right, either. I don’t want this in anyone’s backyard.”—Mike Ewall, Energy Justice Network

Withholding specifics, Ewall suggests attacking Covanta’s trash streams, “potentially starving” the company. “It’s why they hate me,” he says.

Mayfield is banking on Covanta’s “underestimation of us and our will to survive.” With 200 active members, her CRCQL has had some success in preventing further attempts to further Chester’s status as waste magnet. It sued DELCORA over emissions from sludge incineration. It stopped Kimberly-Clark from getting a permit to burn tires. It kept Thermal Pure, the nation’s largest processor of chemotherapeutic medical waste, from coming to Chester. “There were three and four permits a year,” Mayfield says. “Our head was always on a swivel.”

After working full time, Mayfield would attend meetings, review DEP permits and study pollution and technology. “I wasn’t the type environmentalists wanted to fund,” says the mother of three. “I wasn’t an environmentalist. I was an activist fighting for children to thrive and survive—and if you can’t breathe, you can’t do either. They wanted to talk about particulate matter and carcinogens. I wanted to talk about kids who couldn’t breathe.”

Mayfield found the earliest Covanta meetings condescending and riddled with lies. “They told us that the steam pumped out of the stack was not unlike the steam from a shower,” she says. “I told them to go to the top of the stack, take off all their clothes and stand there, then walked out of the meeting.”

Exhausted, Mayfield left Chester in 2002 for three years in Lake Elsinore, Calif. “I knew I was on the way to a breakdown— bodily or mentally,” she says.

But Mayfield returned to renew the fight, moving back into her Chester home until 2007. The house is now boarded up and worthless. She tried renting it, but tenants couldn’t take the smell of industry or the sound of trash trucks. “They wanted something better for their children,” Mayfield says.

Mayfield now lives in Wilmington, Del., “But I’m going back,” she promises. “People have to understand the mentality. You gauge success by how quickly you can get out of Chester. But why would you? It’s my home. I’m home every day in that city—every day before I come to where I sleep.”

Mark Wallace, a 30-year Swarthmore College professor of religion and environmental sciences, testified before the DEP during its nine-stop statewide environmental justice tour in the spring of 2017. “No other town or community would endure the degrading environmental impacts Chester has,” he told state officials.

Originally from Los Angeles, Wallace moved four miles from Chester. At the time, he was told that it’s “a no-go zone.’” What he’s consistently found since is an “ugly manipulation of people in a city to serve a waste industrial complex,” he says. “Chester became a toxic waste zone, a destination for Swarthmore’s crap—all around, up and down the Eastern Seaboard, everyone’s crap. That’s unfair and unjust to bear that disproportionate burden.”

This past May, Chester print journalist and blogger Stefan Roots upset incumbent Chester Councilman William “Al” Jacobs for the Democratic nomination. In running for council, the Villanova University electrical engineering grad wants to restore a Chester that’s been stolen. “This place is on stall in the biggest way,” says Roots of the city where his 96-year-old mother continues to live. “My victory can show people that this [Mayor Thaddeus] Kirkland machine can be breached by engaging young people to take the baton and run. This is a litmus test: Is this city ready for change?”

Perhaps the stars are finally aligned. Chester’s getting help to manage its schools and city government, and plans exist for riverfront redevelopment. By population, Delco is the largest county in the United States without its own health department. This is on track to change with a final January 2022 application for Pennsylvania’s first new health department since 1989. With that comes the promise of actual community-to-community statistics that demonstrate environmental health impacts. “You have a county of this size bordering Philadelphia, and you don’t have a health department—that should be a concern for everybody,” says Media’s Rosemary Holt, a registered pharmacist and a member of the 20-person steering committee behind the application.

Delaware County’s district attorney is proactively coordinating efforts to improve accountability for environmental impacts. Assistant DA Melissa Muroff has spent this past year speaking with stakeholders, listening and informing others about her evolving effort. She sees herself as a bridge between regulatory agencies like the DEP and nonprofit community groups. Beyond illegal dumping, industrial fires and polluted streams, she knows that targeting a large corporation would make an impact. But she also has no authority to pursue a legal case if there’s no violation of state law or evidence of a permit violation. “It can be really frustrating,” says Muroff. “But pollution isn’t always illegal, and often how a polluting industry operates is legal. They’re legally polluting because they have a permit.”

Over by the water, Lisa Gaffney is embracing her role as executive director of the Riverfront Alliance of Delaware County. Over the next decade, the plan calls for attracting and integrating commercial, residential and recreational development. There’s also a focus on improving transportation, connecting to and expanding the East Coast Greenway, and making Barry Bridge Park fit for community use. Gaffney also mentions public art projects.

The alliance wants to convert industrial and underutilized land in a designated Keystone Opportunity Zone. They’ve already used tax credits to redo infrastructure, knowing full well that there will be further expense involved in cleaning up vestiges of industry’s problematic past. “It’s a challenge,” Gaffney admits. “But if we don’t deal with these underutilized properties, they can’t generate taxes and will remain underutilized.”

Christopher Mele dubs the alliance’s plan “desperate development” that’s flawed because the rebuild paradigm is outside Chester, focusing only on the waterfront while neglecting the city. “It’s DIY urbanism,” says Mele, author of Race and the Politics of Deception: The Making of an America City, which focuses on Chester. “The notion that any development is good isn’t the case. Look at Atlantic City. Casinos don’t pan out for the local economy. They’re just not incubators.”

Attracting non-Chester residents isn’t Mele’s idea of sound development. “That’s called displacement,” says the associate professor of sociology at the University of Buffalo, who was raised in Wilmington and lives in Philadelphia.

Even Gaffney figures the economic impact will be “more piecemeal.” The alliance isn’t encouraging “gentrification housing,” but rather construction to increasingly stabilize Chester’s housing market. The plan includes an employer-assisted program to help employees purchase homes in the city.

Gaffney says the alliance has involved residents and local businesses, and they haven’t run into any opposition. “We’re open to more involvement,” she says. “The residents deserve this. They’ve been through a lot.”

Integral to the state’s instituted receivership of Chester is Michael T. Doweary, whose job includes restoring confidence in a collaborative regional effort while staving off bankruptcy. His initial two-year receiver’s assignment is monitored with six-month check-ins. “How much worse do things need to get before they get better?” he asks. “It takes three to five years to change corporate culture. Multiply that by two or three when talking about government. My overall measure of success will be my ability to change the narrative.”

It would be easy for Zulene Mayfield to leave Chester again. “But what happens to a community if everyone moves?” she asks. “It’s no longer a community, is it?”

Mayfield continues to struggle with how to do more. “I’ve dealt with that question,” she admits. “I know I can be most successful if [Covanta] blows up and no one gets hurt. That’s my utopia.”

It’s tough to make headway with residents who are inadequately educated on the issues. Her group doesn’t have the luxury of stay-at-home moms to make calls, though a youth corps does circulate fliers. “We’re a 100-percent volunteer organization, and we’ve gone up against multibillion-dollar international companies and given them hell—even shut some down.,” says Mayfield. “And it can be done again.”

“Any kid who can’t breathe is worth my time,” she continues, fighting back tears. “You can blame the victim. But as officials, you can’t account for the conditions you’ve allowed. We’ve been in a pollution pandemic for a long time.”

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