Swarthmore’s Connection to Environmental (In)Justice in Chester (9/21/23)

By Chris Folk, C-4 Student


Located in the fourth richest county in Pennsylvania, Swarthmore is a utopian suburb for wealthy, liberal whites, where people regularly live into their eighties. Swarthmore, the town and college, can easily feel like a bubble – physically and psychologically isolated from the rest of the world. When one wants to get out and go into “the city,” it’s generally understood to mean Philadelphia. However, the city too often ignored – but integral to Swarthmore’s easy, comfortable existence – is Chester, the only municipality in Delaware County. Chester’s population of roughly 35,000 is predominantly Black, but boasts a growing Latine population. The city’s median household income is $35,000, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, as opposed to Swarthmore’s median household income of $129,000. People in Chester exceed census expectations if they live to seventy.

Anytime a toilet is flushed in Swarthmore or anywhere else in Delaware County, the waste  goes to Chester to be burned. Anytime someone in Delaware County, Philadelphia, or New York puts a piece of waste in the trash can (or often even a recycling bin), that waste is trucked to Chester to be burned. Chester is used by polluting industries, its geographic neighbors, and all levels of government as a dumping ground for waste, a textbook case of Environmental Racism (see Luke Cole and Sheila Foster’s From the Ground Up). In this article, I hope to give perspective on some of the companies that pollute Chester, explain why Chester is targeted, who is fighting against this injustice, and how you can get involved. Because as much as Swarthmore College (and Delaware County, for that matter) loves to talk about its “zero waste” initiatives, these important but ultimately narrow-minded initiatives will prove to be inadequate without an organized political force fighting for structural changes.

Of the myriad polluters that prey upon Chester — the Evonik chemical production plant, the DELCORA sewage incineration facility, and Kimberly Clark paper mill (formerly the Scott paper mill – and that’s the same Scott as Scott Arboretum, look it up) — one stands out above the rest: Covanta’s “Delaware Valley Resource Recovery Facility”. A corporate euphemism for trash burning facility. It is the largest trash incinerator in the United States and 5th largest in the world, located less than 7.5 miles away from the center of Swarthmore’s campus. Trash from all around the country – primarily from Philadelphia, New York City, and all of Delaware County – is trucked into Chester to be burned. Burned 24 hours a day, 365 days a year at a rate of 3,510 tons a day! For context, Swarthmore College produces less than 1000 tons of waste a year, so even if the college were to divert 100% of its waste from the incinerator, it would not slow Covanta down in the least. The pollution emitted from this facility releases a whole host of toxins (sulfur dioxide, lead, NOx, etc.) into the air, which contributes substantially to the extremely high rates of respiratory disease in Chester. Children in Chester have asthma at a rate that is more than seven times greater than the national average for white children, while lung and other cancers are commonplace. This air-borne pollution, while concentrated in Chester, is not isolated to the city and affects us here in Swarthmore as well. Covanta’s smoke stack is visible from some south-facing windows on campus. 

The trash incinerator in Chester has existed for over 30 years, but a new polluter of apocalyptic scale has been quietly attempting to establish itself in the city. Penn America Energy, a shadowy company secretly courting politicians at all levels of government for years now, is proposing to construct what would be one of the largest Liquified Natural Gas (LNG) terminals in the country in the middle of Chester. The construction of this facility (which would be done by Bechtel, a company that has been building infrastructure for the US empire for well over a century) would require the destruction of nearly a hundred homes, many local businesses, a union headquarters, and a daycare. In their day-to-day operations, LNG terminals release pollutants, like benzene and formaldehyde, ushering those who live near them to an early grave. LNG facilities also frequently malfunction with horrific, explosive consequences that would level Chester if such a facility were to be placed in such a densely populated urban area. Moreover, LNG is an extremely dirty energy source both in the process of its extraction (fracking — the evils of which are numerous and thoroughly documented) and its use (the methane released is an incredibly potent greenhouse gas, and burning LNG is considered by some to be worse than coal). This facility cannot be allowed to establish itself in Chester, and it must be stopped before it begins.

I’m highlighting these two companies not to bring another “issue” to the reader’s attention, but to bring forth two pieces of a violently oppressive system. The (environmental) injustice Chester faces is the result of overlapping colonial processes;deep, complicated issues that I am still working to fully understand. I’ll attempt to explain my understanding in just a few sentences. Colonialism is the domination of a population and the land they occupy by another group. The establishment and maintenance of colonialism requires continuous, normalized, and genocidal violence, and allows for the extraction of natural resources (oil, timber, rare earth minerals, etc.) and human resources (slaves, labor, cultural “goods” such as art or music, etc.). Certain thinkers within the realm of environmental justice have highlighted another aspect of colonialism is the depositing of pollution and placement of unwanted land uses (such as trash incinerators, LNG facilities, and even “green” infrastructure like solar and wind farms) into the environment of the colonized. 

Colonialism is not, however, monolithic. There are interacting, interlocking colonial histories and processes that are at the heart of Chester’s subjugation. Through settler colonialism, indigenous peoples are violently removed from their land, such as the Lenni Lenape, who have a historic claim to the land Swarthmore and Chester currently occupy. At the same time, settlers grant themselves unfettered, unaccountable access to the land for voracious resource extraction (i.e. fracked gas) to power empires and wasteful societal arrangements. (Max Liboiron’s Pollution is Colonialism has a far fuller explanation of how pollution is in the bones of settler colonialism and how even well-intentioned environmentalists reproduce settler logics.) 

Another colonial process at play is internal colonization — a system described by figures ranging from Fredrick Douglass to Malcolm X. Chester is rendered an internal colony, a site of a “geographically-based pattern of subordination of a differentiated population located within the dominant power or country” (see Charles Pinderhughes’ work for further elaboration and arguments as to why this is an appropriate framework). W.E.B. Du Bois named twelve characteristics of internal colonization, what he termed semi-colonization, which include physical/psychological violence, economic exploitation, and denial of participation in the political process. Chester mirrors these almost exactly. We can see these characteristics in a city government mired in petty corruption and experiencing one of the most profound economic crises of any municipality in the country. We see them in Chester’s land,  used to serve the interests of corporations and white consumers at the expense of the people living in the city. The polluting industries are only one piece, albeit an incredibly violent and critical piece, of the colonial process strangling Chester’s people.

This is not where the story ends. It is where it begins. Starting with those fighting injustice. Central to the fight for a livable environment in Chester is a powerful grassroots organization called Chester Residents Concerned for Quality Living (CRCQL, pronounced “circle”). Almost as soon as the incinerator began operations in Chester in 1992, CRCQL fought back. CRCQL has successfully shut down or prevented the placement of a whole host of polluting industries in Chester, including soil remediation (read: incineration) facilities, a pet crematorium, and medical waste treatment (read: biohazard incineration) facilities. Today, under the leadership of Chairperson Zulene Mayfield, CRCQL is organizing residents and allies to shut down Covanta and block all attempts Penn America makes to establish an LNG facility in Chester. While much of CRCQL’s energy is devoted to fighting these polluting industries, they are, as the name suggests, concerned with the overall quality of life of the residents of Chester City.

One of the groups most closely supporting CRCQL is right here at Swarthmore College — the Campus Coalition Concerning Chester (C4), of which I am proudly a member! We use our access to the college’s resources (financial, informational, material, etc.) to bolster CRCQL’s efforts. In turn, CRCQL and Chesterites teach us what we cannot learn in a classroom. Over this past summer, I worked alongside Kayla Miller ’25 and Mika Prestowitz ‘24 interning with CRCQL. One project we undertook was helping organize a series of gardening events called Sowing Seeds of Hope. The goal of these events was not only to bring families out to have a day of fun, eat free water ice, and give out vegetable seeds. These events served as a way for residents to imagine beautiful futures with one another. Our events were held in little parks throughout the city that were being maintained by the community because the city government had abandoned them. We met residents, like Mr. Pedro, who acted as a parent to every kid in their neighborhood, cut the overgrown vegetation, and organized trash pick-up days so kids could play in a clean park. I overheard conversations about ways to implement direct, neighborhood-based democracy so all peoples’ voices would decide the decisions made by the city government. Elders talked about their parents’ vegetable gardens and the ones they were growing themselves, kids talked about living without gun violence and without garbage in the streets (a lot of which flies off the trucks that are going to Covanta!).

It is only through collective political action that these systems can be combated. We cannot make a meaningful difference as isolated individuals attempting to make the best consumer choices. We, as students at this institution, learn and grow by listening and adding to organic, existing efforts, supporting the community that is being victimized by these oppressive systems that we tend to learn about only in the abstract. We cannot attempt to combat these systems without centering, not simply rhetorically but in our actions, the lives and agency of those who live under their oppressive reign. In turn, we mature into fuller people, expanding ourselves beyond the limited shells a traditional classroom setting would have a student fit into and dismounting the high horses that many of us ride around on at this school. So if you are concerned about colonialism, global warming, environmental justice, human well-being, Chester, your own health, or all of the above, I encourage you to get organized and join C4.

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