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Clustering of Waste Facilities in Chester, USA


Chester, a city located within Delaware County, one of the most affluent counties in Pennsylvania, represents a pocket of environmental, social, and economic deprivation. About 76% of its 40,000 residents are African American, a majority compared to the rest of the county where African Americans are approximately 6% of the population.

In the 1090s, and after decades of economic and industrial decline, legislators and government authorities from Delaware County and Chester partnered with private investors to transform the city waterfront into a “waste magnet”. In 1985, a Pittsburgh investment company known as Russell, Rea & Zappala (and now Gomulka) partnered with Westinghouse Corporation to form Chester Solid Waste Associates to purchase land along Chester’s waterfront. Since then, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection has granted permits for the construction and expansion of several toxic and hazardous facilities. These facilities include waste treatment facilities, oil refineries, and trash incinerators. The Westinghouse incinerator is one of the largest in the country, burning not only 100% of Delaware County’s own waste, but the waste brought from surrounding states (New York, Delaware, New Jersey, and Ohio).

Since the appearance of these industries, negative health outcomes continue to emerge. A report by the U.S. EPA in 1994 concluded that pollution sources in Chester explain the existence of unacceptable cancer and non-cancer risks, such as kidney and liver disease and respiratory problems.

In reaction to this waste development, in 1992 neighbors from this area of Chester formed the community-based organization Chester Residents Concerned for Quality Living (CRCQL). In 1993, CRCQL filed a lawsuit against Thermal Pure Systems. After being first decided in CRCQL’s favor, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court overturned the ruling. In 1996, CRCQL sued the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (PADEP) under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 for not considering the demographic composition of the city when granting permits to waste facilities. The court ruled in favor of the PADEP. However, in 1997 the Third Circuit Court of Appeals overturned that ruling. Before the US Supreme Court was to hear the case, Soil Remediation Services withdrew its application for a permit to operate. After years of community fight against these polluters, the Chester City Council approved an ordinance requiring new companies to prove that they would not contribute to increasing pollution levels in the city (legislation was watered down in 1999). The DELCORA sewage treatment plant has undertaken major facility improvements and agreed to fund a $200,000 community lead abatement program.

Basic Data

Name of conflict:Clustering of Waste Facilities in Chester, USA
Country:United States of America
State or province:Pennsylvania
Location of conflict:Chester
Accuracy of locationMEDIUM (Regional level)

Source of Conflict

Type of conflict. 1st level:Waste Management
Type of conflict. 2nd level:Pollution related to transport (spills, dust, emissions)
Landfills, toxic waste treatment, uncontrolled dump sites
Specific commodities:Coal
Crude oil
Domestic municipal waste
Industrial waste
Medical Waste

Project Details and Actors

Project details

Westinghouse Resource Recovery Facility burns up to 2,000 tons of trash/day

Project area:1.5
Type of populationUrban
Affected Population:40,000-60,000
Start of the conflict:1985
Company names or state enterprises:Rusell, Rea & Zappala from United States of America
DELCORA from Uruguay
Covanta Energy from United States of America
Kimberly Clark Tissue Corporation from United States of America
Gomulka - Investor
Abbonizio Recycling Corporation from United States of America
Thermal Pure Systems
Chester Solid Waste Associates
Cherokee Environmental Group
Westinghouse Electric Corporation from United States of America
Relevant government actors:USEPA, Delaware County, Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, Chester City Council
Environmental justice organizations (and other supporters) and their websites, if available:Chester Residents Concerned for Quality Living, Camous Coalition Concerning Chester, Chester Environmental Partnership, Delco Alliance for Environmental Justice

Conflict & Mobilization

IntensityMEDIUM (street protests, visible mobilization)
Reaction stageIn REACTION to the implementation (during construction or operation)
Groups mobilizing:Industrial workers
Informal workers
Local ejos
Trade unions
Ethnically/racially discriminated groups
Forms of mobilization:Blockades
Community-based participative research (popular epidemiology studies, etc..)
Development of a network/collective action
Lawsuits, court cases, judicial activism
Media based activism/alternative media
Official complaint letters and petitions
Public campaigns
Street protest/marches


Environmental ImpactsVisible: Noise pollution, Global warming
Potential: Soil contamination, Oil spills, Surface water pollution / Decreasing water (physico-chemical, biological) quality, Groundwater pollution or depletion, Air pollution
Health ImpactsVisible: Accidents, Other Health impacts
Other Health impactsCancer/lead/asthma/low-weight births/headaches
In 1990s: Chester's infant mortality rate was the highest in the state; Chester's lung cancer mortality rate was 60% higher than the county; and 60% of children in Chester had blood-lead levels over the maximum recommended.
Socio-economical ImpactsPotential: Lack of work security, labour absenteeism, firings, unemployment


Project StatusIn operation
Conflict outcome / response:Court decision (victory for environmental justice)
Court decision (failure for environmental justice)
New legislation
Technical solutions to improve resource supply/quality/distribution
Application of existing regulations
Withdrawal of company/investment
Do you consider this an environmental justice success? Was environmental justice served?:Yes
Briefly explain:There have been several victories (some facilities have closed, several proposals for new polluting facilities defeated, a few lawsuits won). However, residents in Chester keep suffering pollution from the several pollution facilities still in place and need to keep fighting every single facility that tries locate within their community.

Sources & Materials

Related laws and legislations - Juridical texts related to the conflict

Court Case 'Chester Residents Concerned for Quality Living vs. Seif

Chester Residents Concerned for Quality living vs. Department of Environmental Resources

Thermal Pure vs. Department of Environmental Resources

References to published books, academic articles, movies or published documentaries

'Laid to Waste', by Robert Bahar and George McCollough

Walsh et al. (1997), Don't Burn It Here

Cole, Luke and Foster, Sheila (2001). From the the Ground Up: Environmental Racism and the Rise of the Environmental Justice Movement

Environmental Injustice in Chester, PA. By Heather Kurtz

The Case for Environmental Justice in Chester, Pennsylvania by Environmental Background Information Center (EBIC)

Mele, Christopher. "Casinos, Prisons, Incinerators, and Other Fragments of Neoliberal Urban Development." Social Science History 35.3 (2011): 423-452.

Foster, Sheila. "Justice from the ground up: Distributive inequities, grassroots resistance, and the transformative politics of the environmental justice movement." Cal. L. Rev. 86 (1998): 775.

Czmus, Akim F. "Failure of Environmental Regulation: What Is a Poor Person to Do-Are the Civil Rights of Community Residents at Odds with Environmental Concerns-Chester Residents Concerned for Quality Living v. Pennsylvania Depatment of Environmental Resources and Thermal Pure Systems, Inc., 1993 WL 456285, The." Hamline J. Pub. L. & Pol'y 16 (1994): 101.

Links to general newspaper articles, blogs or other websites

'Environmental Racism in Chester' by Mike Ewall, Campus Coalition Concerning Chester (C-4)

Environmental Justice Case Study: Toxic Waste in Chester, Pennsylvania

'Waste Treatment Facilities in Chester', by Andy Murray, SPEEC

PPT presentation

Environmental Racism in Chester - Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia

Accomplishments of C-4 and the Chester Residents Concerned for Quality Living and other victories that came in the years following CRCQL and C-4's work. Source:

Related media links to videos, campaigns, social network

Chester Environmental Justice, It contains portions of the 1996 documentary 'Laid to Waste' by R. Bahar & G. McCollough

Maggie Santiago of Chester walks her dachsund past the American Ref-Fuel incinerator every day. She says that living near the plant has left her with a chronic scratchy throat and burning eyes. "Every year, I spend more on medicine," she says.

Photo: Jim Motavalli, 1998

Other comments:This is one of the top 40 influential environmental justice cases in the United States identified from a national survey of environmental activists, scholars and other leaders by graduate students at the University of Michigan

Meta information

Contributor:Alejandro Colsa Pérez, [email protected], University of Michigan School of Natural Resources and Environment
Last update08/07/2015