Danger in Chester, Pennsylvania? A proposed gas-to-liquid processing plant raises concerns, questions for residents in majority Black city – The Final Call (09/21/23)
CHESTER, Pa.—The City of Chester, situated near Philadelphia, has a troubling history of environmental injustices inflicted upon its residents. Now, the predominately Black community faces yet another threat: a proposed gas-to-liquid processing plant by Penn American LNG.
This potentially hazardous facility poses risks to the environment and jeopardizes the health and safety of Chester’s residents. Nonetheless, the community is uniting through various organizations to battle against this proposed plant and safeguard their beloved community.
Lamont Muhammad is the student protocol director for Chester’s Nation of Islam Study Group. He found out about the proposed plant while distributing The Final Call newspaper in the community in late August. Mr. Muhammad said he was given a flyer encouraging the community to attend a meeting and protest against the plant. He attended and stated the experience was enlightening for him.
The flyers were being distributed by Chester Residents Concerned for Quality Living (CRCQL), an organization led by Zulene Mayfield, a prominent community and environmental activist. The group is a well-known community organization spearheading the efforts against the project and rallying community members to take action.
“The city of Chester serves as a prime example of how systemic injustices can manifest in environmental genocide,” she told The Final Call. “Local and state officials are engaging in backroom negotiations, making secret agreements without giving the public a chance to be informed.” Ms. Mayfield states she learned about the proposed plant a year ago, well after the plans were formulated.
She said former Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf formed what’s called the Philadelphia LNG Export Task Force, led by State Representative Martina White, a Republican, who represents areas of far northeast Philadelphia and serves as the secretary for the state House Republican Caucus.
Ms. Mayfield explained that the group is tasked with presenting its findings to the governor for project approval. Despite community efforts, the task force needs more representation from the local area, primarily holding hearings in Philadelphia and its neighboring regions instead of Chester. Notably, the initial two task force meetings in April and May featured testimonies from leaders and lobbyists in the fossil fuel industry.
Lamont Muhammad said in his preliminary observation of the task force based on the community meeting in late August that it became apparent to him that Chester and Delaware County had no representation among its members. “Instead, the task force consisted of individuals from different regions of the state, including Philadelphia,” he said.
“However, what truly piqued my interest was the substantial financial aspect. They discussed an estimated project cost ranging from $4 to $8 billion.”
Profits over people
According to an analysis by the Pennsylvania Manufacturers Association, if the plant materializes in five years, the facility can generate over $700 million in tax revenue for the host city, county, and state. Additionally, it is projected to create numerous job opportunities, bringing significant economic benefits to the region.
Regarding these estimates, Ms. Mayfield dismissively referred to them as mere hocus pocus.
“Many are unaware that these plants can impede economic development in your area, despite their benefits claims. The potential hazards deter other businesses and entities from establishing themselves in the city, thus hindering economic growth. Furthermore, this phenomenon results is what I call ‘clearing the land,’ as individuals leave out of fear and in pursuit of safer communities. It serves as yet another blow to Chester’s already struggling state, a nail in the coffin if you will, with some residents attempting to persevere by investing in properties,” she said.
“This plant will be placed directly next to residential homes, causing harmful pollutants such as benzene, formaldehyde, and other chemicals to be released into the air. This would devastate the community’s health, including respiratory illnesses, cancers, and congenital disabilities.”
According to an Environmental Risk Study for the city of Chester, the federal government has extensively documented already disproportionately high levels of cancer and asthma for decades.
Stefan Roots, the uncontested mayoral candidate, is poised to assume office in January. He spoke with The Final Call concerning the plan.
“There is a significant discussion surrounding Pennsylvania’s ambition to leverage their natural gas reserves through fracking, aiming to establish it as a global commodity. The plan involves liquefying the gas and transporting it via ship to destinations such as Europe, Japan, Taiwan, and China. As time progresses, Chester City is emerging as the preferred location for the liquefaction plant and export terminal,” said Mr. Roots.
“However, as a city councilman and presumptive mayor, when considering this proposal, it is crucial to analyze the pertinent data. I am interested in concrete figures, detailed plans, and employing experts to assess the project comprehensively. The intention to situate the venture in Chester city is evidently clear.”
However, Mr. Roots explained that the potential addition of a new industrial facility in the city raises his concerns about public health and safety. “As an old industrial town already facing numerous challenges, introducing another polluting entity could exacerbate existing issues. Heart attacks, strokes, infant mortality, diabetes, and asthma rates are already alarmingly high due to the presence of multiple industries, including a trash recycling plant that arrived three decades ago, amplifying our health disparities,” he said.
“This new facility, which aims to liquefy natural gas, is anticipated to release similar air pollutants and potentially more, such as formaldehyde. Furthermore, the fracking process used to extract this natural gas raises concerns about potential unknown toxins,” he noted.
Mr. Roots said that equally worrying is the outdated environmental regulations governing this type of operation, which have remained unchanged since 1980. “If permits were to be issued for this plant, it would be based on data over 40 years old. We face a similar situation with our existing trash incinerator, which still adheres to Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulations from the mid-1990s despite being operational for three decades,” he explained.
“Modernizing these regulations is imperative, as constructing such a plant today would have more stringent emissions standards. Regarding public safety, it is crucial to understand the volatility of natural gas, especially in its liquid state. The process involves condensing the gas, and it is important to note that even a single spark could lead to a significant eruption or explosion. This explains why plants of this proposed size are usually located in remote areas.”
The Final Call attempted to reach founder, chairman and Chief Executive Officer of Penn America Energy Holdings, Franc James, but received no response. In published reports, he said environmental stewardship is a priority. “With our focus on being the cleanest and most environmentally and socially responsible LNG facility in the world, we will ensure that the community the project is located in will be protected,” wrote Mr. James in an email.
“The company’s focus is on being a responsible and generous corporate citizen dedicated to making life better for all those nearby as we ensure the local environment is always a priority and safeguarded.”
However, based on history, residents and activists have reason to be skeptical and doubtful.
A forgotten city
According to the U.S. Census, Chester has a population of nearly 33,450 residents. Blacks make up 71.9 percent of the population. The median household income of residents is $35,751 with 28.5 percent of people living in poverty.
Bigga Dre, longtime Chester community activist, told The Final Call, that the city is a fascinating place to observe, where the bare essentials of life—food, shelter, and water—take center stage. “However, this small city also has a correctional institution, symbolizing the prison industrial complex. Alongside that, Chester has a casino, bringing along its own concerns. We’ve seen the impact casinos can have, haven’t we? But that’s not all,” he said.
“Companies driven by profit and disregarding life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness have set their sights on this city, dumping their waste without providing any value in return. There’s a trash refinery polluting the air, posing health risks, and diminishing the quality of life. And let’s remember the proposed pipeline by (Penn American) LNG, which may bring more harm than good. But the most striking aspect is the absence of a grocery store in the city, depriving the community of essential food resources.”
State Senator Anthony Hardy Williams, a Democrat representing West Philadelphia and parts of Delaware County and a Philadelphia LNG Export Task Force member, shared his perspective on the proposal with The Final Call.
“The task force is responsible for reviewing the feasibility of establishing an LNG facility along the coastline in this area. Their role also includes engaging with the public to discuss the potential benefits and gather their perspective on this matter. These are the general parameters of their mandate as I understand it,” he told The Final Call.
“We do studies all the time in Harrisburg, and I can’t tell you that they necessarily follow the directives of any commission or task force. Sometimes, they create these things to validate a position they want to take, to say they talked to the community or something like that. They’ve got an expert testimony. Or sometimes, you know, it’s a revelation that people learn something from those convenings. This task force is not necessarily at the top of the list regarding what Governor (Josh) Shapiro would be inclined to do or follow.
“Regular studies are conducted in Harrisburg; however, it should be noted that they may not always strictly adhere to the directives of any particular commission or task force,” Senator Williams said.
“In some cases, these studies are initiated to validate a preexisting position or to demonstrate community engagement. Expert testimonies and valuable insights can also emerge from such engagements. However, it’s important to emphasize that the final decisions made by the governor may not prioritize the recommendations of this particular task force.”
In terms of the lack of community participation on the task force, he said it’s not unusual because these are generally composed of membership from the General Assembly. Task forces are to then report findings to the General Assembly.
While Senator Williams said it is concerning there are no community meetings the task force is attempting to arrange, the absence of community representation on the panel does not trouble him. He said he favors fracking and the revenue it can create.
“As a legislator, I have a definite opinion on the matter. I am a staunch supporter of natural gas development in Pennsylvania despite my colleagues’ and others’ differing views on fracking. However, it is essential to note that my support comes with specific inclusion, diversity, and environmental protection requirements. We have made significant progress in ensuring clean water and air quality despite unfounded claims of pollution,” he said.
“Moreover, natural gas development presents a remarkable economic opportunity for Pennsylvania. It is our potential, our strength, and our future. To achieve success, these plants must foster a supportive community around them.”
He acknowledged the reservations expressed by Chester’s residents due to past disappointments but sees the Penn American LNG project as an opportunity to “revitalize the community by offering promising employment prospects while ensuring minimal pollution.”
“The success in similar situations elsewhere gives hope. Nonetheless, respecting local politics and not imposing any decisions is crucial. It is concerning that it might be too late if the opportunity is missed. Thus, both sides need to foster constructive dialogue and find common ground.
If Chester opposes, then the answer should be an unequivocal ‘no’ to bringing the plant in.” The senator mentioned that the task force will convene one final time before presenting its conclusive report to the governor in November. However, the exact location of the meeting is yet to be confirmed.
Targeting a vulnerable community
Student Minister Keith Muhammad of the Nation of Islam Chester Study Group told The Final Call he stands firmly with Chester Residents Concerned for Quality Living and Ms. Mayfield.
“The consistent pattern of locating industrial pollutants and health-damaging factories in poor, predominantly Black and Brown communities is deeply concerning. Even more alarming is the proposal to establish additional LNG plants, further aggravating the health challenges these already vulnerable communities face,” he said.
“This practice, which prioritizes corporate interests and maintains the status quo, disproportionately affects already marginalized populations. Unfortunately, even well-informed and organized individuals are often sidelined in decision-making. This is exemplified by the case of the large (trash to steam) Covanta plant in the city, which follows this harmful pattern,” explained Student Minister Muhammad.
“We fully support Ms. Mayfield in our community. Although the recent meeting was last minute and seemed to exclude the public, a few voices were allowed to be heard. It is evident, after looking into the situation, that the words of the Honorable Minister Louis Farrakhan ring true that politics without economics is merely a symbol without substance, as some politicians primarily represent the financial interests of big business rather than our community. In 2016, then Governor Wolf and Penn America began efforts to construct a plant. Rest assured, we stand behind Ms. Mayfield and her cause.”
The abundance of wealth, while seemingly enticing, is unfortunately not generated for Blacks and the poor in the Chester community, explained Ms. Mayfield. “Our community’s prosperity is bred from within, rooted in the collective efforts of its members. Regrettably, some exploit communities like ours. In my perspective, they act as exploiters, seizing opportunities at the expense of our shared growth and well-being. Their sole purpose is to extract,” she said.
Her words echo the Honorable Elijah Muhammad, the Eternal Leader of the Nation of Islam. In his seminal book, “Message to the Blackman in America,” He writes: “That old serpent, the devil and Satan the old beast is the dragon which deceiveth the whole world of the poor ignorant darker nations and has caused them to fall off of their mount of prosperity, success, and independence by accepting advice, guidance and empty promises which he never intended to fulfill.”