Residents of Chester, a small, hardscrabble city on the banks of the Delaware River, have always dealt with poverty, the scourge of drug abuse and addiction, crime, and high unemployment.
Now, they are coming to grips with a new reality: environmental injustice.
The city has the largest trash incinerator in the country, burning up to 3,510 tons of garbage a day. It receives waste from Pennsylvania and 14 other states, Puerto Rico and Canada, according to an agency that fights for environmental justice.
The city’s residents have suffered major health risks including higher incidences of cancer than people living elsewhere in Pennsylvania, according to the Energy Justice Network. Chester has the state’s highest infant mortality rate and a lung cancer mortality rate about 60 percent higher than the rates for Delaware County.
Chester has a deep-rooted history of environmental racism — the act of taking advantage of a poor community and destroying its environment for economic benefits. But for years, this environmental hazard went mostly unacknowledged, receiving little to no coverage in the media.
Jamison Maley, a University of Pennsylvania graduate student who teaches environmental ethics at the Haverford School, researched the history of environmental racism in Chester.
“In 1994, 67 percent of children in Chester had blood-lead levels higher than the ‘acceptable risk,’ ” Maley said in a recent interview. As a result, Chester residents took a stand and spoke up about their concerns.
The EPA responded in 1995, releasing a citywide Environmental Risk Study, exposing the injustice and dangers that lie within the community. At the time, news articles increased local awareness of the situation.
However, over the past decade, the media no longer gives the environmental justice issue much coverage, residents say.
“I don’t think [the media] covered it at all,” said Guillaume Laforest, a Chester resident and a freshman at the Haverford School. “In Chester, they just focus on the crime that’s going on; they don’t pay attention to anything that’s environmental.”
Since 1992, a number of organizations led environmental activism in the city: from Chester Residents Concerned for Quality Living, to Campus Coalition Concerning Chester, to Laborers International Union Local 413, the DelCo Alliance for Environmental Justice, which was founded by the Energy Justice Network. And since 2011, there’s been a youth group called Chester Green.
DelCo Alliance for Environmental Justice, is now operating as Chester Environmental Justice, said Mike Ewall, founder and director of Energy Justice Network.
“We still conduct toxic tours, like the one we did for two buses of students who attended the national Students for Zero Waste conference in Philadelphia last November,” Ewall said, adding that the group conducts interviews, acts as a watchdog and mobilizes around major issues as needed.
“People who live in Chester are ignorant about [environmental injustice],” Laforest said. “We should know what’s happening in our city, but I also think the government should tell us what’s happening to us.”
If anything, Chester residents need their voices heard now more than ever.
In the spring of 2017, Kimberly-Clark, a paper-based personal care company, developed and expanded its paper mill and power plant in Chester. Just blocks away from residential areas, the plant burns coal and produces crude oil by-products on a regular and consistent basis.
This development came as no surprise to Maley. “More of the toxic facilities are institutionalized in lower-class communities like Chester,” he said.
Unfortunately for Chester, the Kimberly-Clark paper mill is just the beginning of more threats.
Chemical plants and oil refineries like Monroe Energy, Evonik Degussa Corporation, Sunoco Marcus Hook Refinery, and Pq Corporation line the riverfront, all spanning a range of only 3.4 miles.
But many in Chester have no clue what’s being done to them.
“I’ve seen [the facilities],” Laforest said. “I didn’t know that they were five different companies, though. I never really cared until now, now that this is being brought to my attention.”
“We have to make it an issue,” Laforest said. “We have to go to the government and talk about it. It’s [the government’s] job to protect the people, and we’re the people too.”