The Covanta trash-to-steam plant in Chester is a political hot potato that helped to propel novice candidate Stefan Roots onto the ballot for a spot on Chester City Council this fall. It also poses a conundrum for those who want to shut it down: What comes next?
Covanta, AKA the Delaware Valley Resource Recovery Facility, is a waste-to-energy plant that incinerates waste to generate power built by Westinghouse in 1991. According to the company, the facility has a waste processing capacity of 3,500 tons per day with a maximum power output of 87 megawatts.
Covanta receives trash from across the region. Approximately 29 percent of the waste it receives is from Delaware County. The remaining processing capacity is used by communities in New York, New Jersey, and parts of Maryland, according to Nicolle Robles, a Covanta spokeswoman.
“Covanta Delaware Valley produces 87 megawatts of electricity 24/7, enough to power 48,000 homes for one year,” Robles said. “The electricity is sold to the local grid and thus powering homes and businesses in Delaware County and in Chester.”
Just as significant as its carbon footprint is its cash one: It pays $5 million a year to the City of Chester for a hosting fee and another $3 million in various taxes. That $8 million represents about 15 percent of the city’s entire $55 million budget.
Community activists like Roots want Chester to end its relationship with Covanta when the contract expires next April and they want to facility shut down. They say it’s an issue of environmental justice, with the incinerator operating in a community that’s 70 percent Black and 12 percent Latino.
About 200 people attended a virtual meeting of the Delaware County Solid Waste Authority in May, claiming the plant is a health hazard, perpetuates racial injustice, and should be shut down.
If they get their way, where will the $8 million for the city budget come from? What energy source will replace the 87 megawatts of electricity on the grid — fossil fuel?
Chester Mayor Thaddeus Kirkland, who is Black, supports the plant, which now publishes its emissions data on its website. He has also taken residents on tours of the plant, which tends to change their perceptions.
“Chester’s issues are not with the plant,” said Kirkland. Instead, he blamed air pollution in the city on exhaust from the thousands of vehicles that travel daily on nearby I-95, I-476, the Commodore Barry Bridge, and Route 291 for causing the illnesses that residents attribute to Covanta.
“Carbon monoxide from those vehicles does more harm than anything,” said Kirkland. “We’re surrounded by highways.”
Roots doesn’t agree. His surprise victory in the Chester City Council Democratic primary was fueled in part by opponents of the Covanta plant who want him to push for its closure.
Roots acknowledges he doesn’t have all the answers yet about how Chester would regain the funds that it receives from Covanta if he were to be successful in removing the plant. But that is his goal, along with luring upscale commercial development along the Delaware River where the incinerator is now.
“Well, that is the consideration,” Roots told Delaware Valley Journal. “In the perfect world, I truly believe and many others, that the waterfront property would become so much more valuable to the city if that incinerator was not there. I don’t think it would take much for that to be made up.”
But he doesn’t think potential commercial development would be built “next to an incinerator…Waterfront is very attractive to anyone who wants to live on the water. Chester has one of the most beautiful waterfronts around,” Roots said.
And, Roots notes, the money from Covanta has hardly solved the city’s problems. “By the same token, we’ve had that $5 million coming into the city for years and the city is still in receivership. So it makes one wonder, how important is that $5 million to the city, in terms of saving the city? So whether it’s $5 million from an incinerator or untold millions from new development, Chester just does not have an anchor that will draw new development.”
Still, supporters of the Covanta plant note that getting rid of the current revenue won’t help, and replacing $8 million in annual revenues from waterfront development one day in the future is hardly assured, with or without the plant. And, they ask — what happens to the trash? Will Delaware County homeowners and businesses have to pay more to ship it somewhere else?
One longtime activist insists that the plant must go.
“There is not a household in Chester that benefits from their electric byproduct,” said Zulene Mayfield, founder of Chester Residents for Quality Living, an opponent of the incinerator. “That’s not what they do. They burn trash. Nobody’s house is going to be dark because Covanta is not sending electricity.”
Mayfield, who owns property in Chester but is now a resident of the state of Delaware, also disputed the $5 to $8 million amount of Covanta’s contribution to Chester, saying her organization calculates it as no more than $3 million.
Meanwhile, water is used in the waste-to-energy process to generate steam for electricity production and to cool leftover steam to be reused in a closed-loop. This process occurs in the cooling tower. The water consumed in the process is treated water from a neighboring wastewater treatment plant (DELCORA) in order to reduce stress on the local water system, Robles said.
“Waste-to-energy facilities are a modern means of sustainable waste disposal that are widely recognized for mitigating the impacts of climate change,” Robles said. “These facilities, like the one in Chester, PA are critical to our low carbon future, helping to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by a ton, on average, for every ton of waste processed. This is due to avoiding methane from landfills, offsetting emissions from fossil fuel electrical production, and recovering metals for recycling.”
Roots, a long-time blogger, said his campaign was championed by Todd Strine, publisher of The Swathmorean, who befriended him when he became a contributor to that paper. Strine, a scion of the wealthy Strine family, opened doors for Roots.
“It’s been a very fruitful friendship,” Roots said. “He knows lots of people who want good government. When they’re at that level, they just ask and say, ‘Hey, I’m representing him’ and the sky’s the limit…As a result of his connections that is what funded my campaign.” Roots was worried at first about what all these out-of-town donors would want from him. But he learned, “they just want people in office who can make a difference…I’m grateful for the connection with Todd.”
Roots remains a staunch incinerator antagonist.
“We’re just a poor town trying to make it through,” said Roots. “And we see a lot of economic opportunity down here that has not been realized. And I really believe it’s because of that big, fire-breathing monster down on the Delaware River with that smokestack that reminds me of a middle finger every time I look at it.”