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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Lawsuit by Chester, Pennsylvania

Air Date: Week of

Outside of Philadelphia in Chester, Pennsylvania the African American community of 45,000 residents is suing against the disproportionate number of waste disposal licenses issued for dumping there. Reporter Paul Conlow explains.


NUNLEY: It's Living on Earth. I'm Jan Nunley. The NIMBY syndrome has become part of the social fabric of America. Local residents banding together to oppose a factory or a trash facility proposed for their neighborhood. But for residents of low income and minority communities, the cry of "Not in my back yard" has a special resonance, because they feel that the facilities that no one else wants often end up in their back yards. In recent years poor and minority communities have used a variety of innovative legal strategies to fight against polluting industries, landfills, incinerators, and the like. Now a group in a small city just outside Philadelphia has come up with a new approach which could have nationwide impact. Paul Conlow of member station WHYY in Philadelphia explains.

(Loud radio sounds and voice calling)

CONLOW: Residents of the west end neighborhood of Chester, Pennsylvania, sit outside on a warm evening listening to music and waving to carloads of teenagers passing by.

(Auto horns added to the mix)

CONLOW: Chester is a small city on the Delaware River just south of Philadelphia. Once it was a center of shipbuilding, manufacturing, and auto assembling. Today, most of those jobs are gone, and Chester's 42,000 residents, most of them black, endure urban crime, poverty, and municipal bankruptcy. People here say there's another blight on the city, and you need only follow the trucks constantly rumbling though the community to find it.

(Truck sounds)

CONLOW: Many of the trucks are bound for waste treatment facilities clustered along the west end's waterfront. There's an incinerator burning about three quarters of a million tons of trash every year. A sewage treatment plant and sludge processor, numerous recycling facilities, and until recently, a medical waste treatment plant.

(Truck sounds continue)

CONLOW: Some Chester residents say enough is enough. They're taking the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection to Federal court, charging the agency with discrimination by granting permits to so many waste treatment facilities in Chester that only a few operate in the surrounding, mostly white Delaware County. Zulene Mayfield heads the Chester Residents Concern for Quality Living. She says it's time for more affluent suburbs to consider where their waste is going.

MAYFIELD: We got the trucks, we have the noise, we have the dust. In the meantime, somebody up on a mainline can put their garbage out and not give a damn where it goes out. We're saying, think. Think about who this is impacting.

CONLOW: The west end is a neighborhood of modest row homes built close to the street, and a group of neighborhood children pause in their play to describe another impact of nearby waste treatment plants.

CHILD: Yeah, it stinks. It stinks. [Laughs]

CONLOW: Complaints like these are common in the nation's low income and minority communities. Since the early 80s activists have been charging environmental racism in the siting of waste treatment facilities in these communities, which often lack the financial resources and the political clout to oppose them. Jerome Balter, an attorney with the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia, is representing the Chester residents. Balter says that despite growing attention to so-called environmental justice issues, little progress has been made to correct inequities.

BALDER: It has become like the weather. Everybody talks about it but nobody does anything about it. I think now we have started to see a way to do something about it.

CONLOW: The Chester group is attacking the problem in a way which Balter says has not been tried before in Federal court. Rather than arguing that the facilities pose health risks, the suit claims that the Pennsylvania DEP has violated Federal civil rights laws and Federal Environmental Protection Agency regulations against discrimination. Since 1987, according to the suit, the state agency has granted permits for 7 waste treatment facilities in Delaware County. Five in Chester, with the capacity of more than 2 million tons a year and only 2 with a 1,400 ton annual capacity in the rest of the county. Chris Novak of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection would not comment directly on the suit, but did say the agency only considers compliance with environmental regulations in reviewing waste facility permits.

NOVAK: We do not look at demographics nor the economics of a community as part of that review.

CONLOW: Balter and the Chester residents want that to change. They're asking the court to order the Federal Environmental Protection Agency to withhold funds allocated to Pennsylvania until the state agency considers racial and economic factors and the concentration of facilities in a community in its review process. The suit could force other states which do not take these factors into account to do the same, and it's being closely watched by social and environmental activists around the country. Carey Moss is director of the Sugar Law Center in Detroit, a national civil rights organization which brought a similar case in a Michigan state court.

MOSS: States routinely take the position that they don't choose where sites go. Industry does or local, you know, zoning bodies make those decisions. So therefore, they have absolutely no responsibility to look at what the effect is of those decisions, the fact that polluting sources may be predominantly in minority communities is of no concern to them as a result. It's our position that in fact the civil rights laws of this country require them to first look at the racial impact of their decisions, and if they don't do that they're violating those laws.

CONLOW: Low income communities like Chester often have concentrations of polluting industries and hazardous waste sites, and often suffer health problems including high cancer ad infant mortality rates. Environmental justice advocates say they can ill afford more waste treatment facilities. And no one knows that better than Chester resident Patricia Patrick.

(Railway horn and bells)

CONLOW: From her neat west end row home, Patrick can watch locomotives lugging tank cars to and from the oil refineries just outside the city. The city's incinerator stands just beyond the tracks. And trucks rumble down her street, bound for the nearby sewage treatment plant. Patrick lost one daughter to cancer. Another has diabetes. And she says her husband suffers from a serious intestinal ailment and she has migraine headaches.

PATRICK: Had all of this not been around me, you know, I think that we would have been all right. But we -- we just can't live healthy. If I open my door right there in my kitchen table, I open my door right in there, you're going to get a certain amount of fumes and dust while you're eating.

CONLOW: There's no court date yet in the residents' suit against Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection. If they succeed, the people of Chester may not have to eat more dust or breathe more fumes in the future.

(Trucks roll by)

CONLOW: For Living on Earth, I'm Paul Conlow in Chester, Pennsylvania.



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