CHESTER >> The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection held a listening session in the Chester City Council chambers Tuesday evening with members of the public who spoke on behalf of the community to bring positive change.
It was hosted through the DEP’s Office of Environmental Justice, with its mission to ensure the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of people regardless of political or socioeconomic status.
The DEP’s Patrick Patterson, Patrick McDonnell and Carl Jones listened and took notes while community members, college professors, activists and concerned citizens were given the opportunity to raise concerns about environmental injustices and question the level to which the state is engaged with the community and how to give communities like Chester a greater voice.
“Chester City has suffered incredible disproportionate environmental impacts over the years,” said Mark Wallace, a professor of religion and environmental sciences at Swarthmore College. “Chester as we know suffers from disproportionate impacts particularly in regards to children.”
Wallace cited Chester as suffering from a high rate of waste in the Delaware River in the form of polychlorinated biphenyl, or PCBs, and lead paint in people’s homes.
“No other town or community would endure the degrading environmental impacts that Chester has,” Wallace said. “(Chester residents) have not been able to leave this area in spite of these impacts.”
Kathryn Flagg, a retired educator, said to the DEP: “We desperately need you to make a difference so the city will be a safe and healthy place to live.”
Retired educator and president of the Radnor League of Women Voters Roberta Winters said the DEP needs to engage in a great level of dialog with the community, regular meetings, facilitate job training, early childhood intervention and more accountability.
Historically, minority and low-income populations have carried the brunt of the environmental impacts in urban areas where toxicity levels of water are higher, old and poorly zoned homes may have walls painted with lead paint and a great proportion of automobile emissions have reduced air quality. Livia Smith, director of Chester’s Public Health Services, said money that once came to the city for asthma treatment was over time redirected elsewhere.
“I’m asking to redirect those funding back to the city of Chester so we can take care of our environmental issues here,” Smith said, adding that the aging schools in Chester have brought about inherent air quality issues from within the building that extend beyond the realm of the Department of Education.
“From a health perspective, look at the internal structures of our aging buildings,” Smith said. “It took me until the age of 50 to develop asthma.”
In 1998, a group of residents in the Chester Residents Concerned for Quality Living sued the DEP in federal court, alleging discrimination. They contended that a variety of waste facilities in Chester, which hosts only 8 percent of the total county population but contains 60 percent of all its waste facilities.
Soil Reclamation Service, which had intended to construct and begin business in Chester, was denied an operations permit and therefore the court case was declared moot all the way at the United States Supreme Court.
To this day, residents continue to be involved in the Chester Environmental Partnership, of which the DEP is a member along with Monroe Industry, Chester city government, the Sierra Club, Widener University, Kimberly Clark, and many other schools, organizations, authorities and residents.
Residents contended with the words of Wallace, saying it is in not their wish to leave the Chester community but rather to improve it.
Delores Shelton, a longtime resident and active community member, said Covanta Delaware Valley, the waste-to-energy plant on 10 Highland Avenue, was a “good neighbor,” praised for the work of Dr. Horace Strand and others of CEP for keeping companies in Chester “on their toes” in terms of environmental impacts.
“Chester is one family. For years we only had one high school. Everybody in Chester went to that one high school, so we know each other,” Shelton said. “I’m here by choice, I love Chester, I love the community and I stay here.”
The DEP will make a final stop in Philadelphia on Thursday that will conclude its nine-stop environmental justice tour across Pennsylvania.