Last week, Covanta began posting on its website daily averages of emissions factors at the Chester incinerator in an attempt to show how the facility works every day.
“We care deeply about the Chester community and understand some residents have raised concerns about the facility,” said Derek Veenhof, Covanta’s chief operating officer. “We want residents to know we’ve heard them and in taking this step, we are demonstrating our commitment to changing the status quo. Chester is an environmental justice community and as an industrial operator in the community, we take our responsibility for minimizing the impacts of our operation seriously. Our work to reduce emissions and overall environmental impacts is never-ending.”
The plant has lately been the target of protesters who claim its emissions have a negative impact on the health of the community.
The information featured at www.covanta.com/where-we-are/our-facilities/delaware-valley presents the same information monitored by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection as required by the Waste-to-Energy facility's air permit that allows it to operate.
“I appreciate Covanta’s efforts to increase transparency around the operation of their facility,” Chester Mayor Thaddeus Kirkland said. “Covanta has been both a good neighbor and a good partner to Chester. They have been, and continue to be, a part of our community for the long haul, serving the waste disposal needs of our community and many other communities, and is the preferred alternative to landfills, while providing important economic benefits to our city and the larger region.”
"I think this is a step in the direction of increased transparency," Veenhof said. "Hopefully, it doesn't create more confusion and it shines a light on, 'Well,ok, we can see the record over time. We're tracking this Covanta's posting, what they're doing.' You look at it in its aggregate form and you say, 'Well, you know, we've seen it for a year, we haven't seen anything that looks amiss in a year.'"
Should there be an issue, he added, it will be disclosed. Normally, the information is submitted to DEP and will continue to do so, but can take a period of time for the public to retrieve it from the state agency.
The website features a chart that shows five emissions measures from six units from probes in the stack that take real-time measurements. The materials being observed include carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, opacity and hydrogen chloride.
"They're all before-outlet," Veenhof explained. "The tip of the stack is the outlet. There are different measurement points ... You're measuring the flue gas as it's coming out."
For the carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides and hydrogen chloride, the value presented is the daily average over the 24 hours in that day. Opacity values are the maximum six-minute average for the day. Regan said the values shown illustrate the worst experienced in the previous day.
For each of the items, the permit limit is posted so that a viewer can compare the daily average to what the regulatory limit is for the facility to operate.
"We're rolling it out for all of our facilities now," James W. Regan, Covanta's senior director of corporate communications, said. "And, we're starting in (Environmental Justice) communities. We're starting in places like Chester because we want to increase transparency"
"To be able to share this, we're saying, 'Look, you know, you'll see every day of the year how we're operating," Veenhof said, adding that the facility could meet the standards of any new plant built despite its age.
The COO said the company works with regulatory bodies such as DEP and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to determine where things get measured and what the times are of an appropriate measurement is.
Plus, Veenhof added, "When a facility does not perform well, the people that run that facility understand the damage that it does. We measure our people by safety and environmental performance ... If you're not performing, it hurts."
He said he views the industry as on a journey on how to get better and the way to get there is through science and technology with the understanding that today human health and environment must be protected.
"Engagement, dialogue, working with people is a lot more productive than burying your head in the sand saying, 'We're going to ignore it,'" Veenhof said, adding that the focus can be, "How do we move everybody in society forward in a productive fashion?"
When it comes to waste, particularly in areas of mass urbanization, someone has to deal with it, he said, noting that there are incinerators in the middle of Paris and Vienna and in Long Island, N.Y.
The facility along Highland Avenue was built by Westinghouse and opened in 1991. Covanta took ownership of the plant in 2005 and company officials note that the facility operates up to 99% below its federally regulated standards for emissions while converting 3,500 tons of municipal solid waste each day into 80 megawatts of electricity or enough to power 70,000 homes.
Much of the waste comes from New York, Philadelphia, New Jersey and Maryland. About 30 percent of it comes from Delaware County and 1.8 percent of it comes from Chester.
The facility also recycles 50,000 tons of metal a year. Of the 4,000 employees at Covanta, 105 work at the Chester facility and 46 percent of them live within 10 miles of it.