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For 30 years, she has fought a waste-to-energy plant in Chester City: ‘We don’t have a choice’

Zulene Mayfield founded Chester Residents Concerned for Quality Living, long before the term “environmental justice” became shorthand to describe the impact of industry on low-income neighborhoods.

Zulene Mayfield stands in front of the Delaware Valley Resource Recovery Facility in Chester, Pa. Mayfield is a long-time opponent of the facility.
Zulene Mayfield stands in front of the Delaware Valley Resource Recovery Facility in Chester, Pa. Mayfield is a long-time opponent of the facility.Read moreJonathan Wilson

Dozens of large trucks rumble hourly toward a large waste-to-energy incinerator operated by Covanta at the edge of a neighborhood in Chester City’s West End.

Other trucks take a fork in the road and head to a sewage sludge incinerator operated by Delcora. A pile of scrap metal from a recycling facility juts high over back yards. Along the rail line that runs alongside the community, freight cars clack by, or stop and idle behind the homes.

Glance up, and you can see the smokestacks of the Marcus Hook Industrial Complex a mile or so in the distance.

Zulene Mayfield, who raised a family in a two-story rowhouse in that neighborhood at Front and Thurlow Streets off the Delaware River, has been fighting for 30 years against what she and other residents see as the industrial scarring of her hometown. Mayfield said that home, assessed at about $17,000, is now worthless because of all the industry surrounding it, and she has since moved.

She founded Chester Residents Concerned for Quality Living, long before the term “environmental justice” became shorthand to describe the impact of heavy industry on low-income neighborhoods. Over the years, Mayfield and her allies have fought back against plans for a large pet crematorium, a medical waste facility, proposals to burn tires for energy, and a plant to process contaminated soil.

“If you can name it, we fought it,” Mayfield said.

But her first, and continued, fight has been against the Covanta plant, where municipal waste gets incinerated at 2,000 degrees, generating steam that turns turbines to produce electricity. It lies directly across the railroad tracks from the home she still owns, but where she no longer lives.

She hasn’t stopped the plant, but she finds satisfaction in how she has brought attention to the fact that a polluting industry is allowed to carry on directly across from a neighborhood. Now, her efforts have helped Delaware County reconsider renewing its contract with the plant in 2022. A public hearing in May drew about 200 residents to voice the same kinds of objections about air pollution, noise and racism that Mayfield has been making for decades.

“Is it exhausting to keep fighting? You’d better [expletive] believe it,” Mayfield said. “I work full time, and did this. We didn’t even have a budget when we started.”

At times, she said, the continued battles took a toll on her mental well-being. Now, she’s found renewed support in the burgeoning movement to address what advocates say is systemic racism that has pushed polluting industries onto communities of color.

“People can’t keep their cars clean, they can’t keep their houses clean because of all the dust and the soot,” Mayfield said. “The houses have structural damage from the amount of trucks that come into the facility.”

‘No one knew what that was’

Mayfield, who has since moved to Delaware, lived in Chester for decades. She had no idea in 1990 that Westinghouse had plans for a 31-acre industrial parcel across the tracks from her home.

“They said it was going to be a trash-to-energy plant, but no one knew what that was,” Mayfield recalled. “Every time, we would make reference to the ‘incinerator,’ they would say, ‘No, No. You don’t know what you’re talking about.’ By the time the community knew what was happening, it was already online.”

But Mayfield attended meetings and joined a growing movement against the facility, which Covanta later purchased. She teamed up with Polish and Ukrainian Americans who then were sizeable in number in the neighborhood, and a priest from St. Hedwig’s Church.

Chester, a city of about 34,000 people, is now 70% Black and 12% Latino. About 31% of the residents live in poverty, and the median household income is $32,000. By comparison, 23% of Philly’s residents live in poverty and the median income is $46,000.

At just six square miles, Chester has 345 businesses that require permits to operate from the Department of Environmental Protection, the most of any Delaware County municipality.

The city is also home to a Kimberly-Clark paper mill, which recently converted from coal-fired operations to natural gas; the Wade Superfund site; and PQ Corp., which makes chemicals and does metal finishing.

And, of course, it has Subaru Park, home of the Philadelphia Union soccer franchise. Mayfield and her allies called out the stadium recently when it issued a news release saying it was going ‘landfill free’ — except that the plans called for some waste to go to the Covanta plant for incineration.

Covanta’s Delaware Valley Resource Recovery Facility is the nation’s largest trash incinerator, according to data analyzed by the Energy Justice Network, a nonprofit environmental advocacy group based in Bucks County.

Covanta disputes that ranking, but it is a major operation, taking in 1.2 million tons of solid waste a year from local communities, New Jersey, and New York. Philly alone contributes 386,000 tons. It accepts the third most trash of any solid waste disposal facility in the state, according to DEP data.

‘People can’t sit outside’

Mayfield still leads protests against the plant, calling its pollution controls outdated and insufficient. Most recently, she’s helped organize a boycott of Ocean City, Md., which sends its trash to the plant. The Baltimore Sun wrote about those efforts in July.

Mayfield’s network includes the nonprofit advocacy groups Clean Air Council and Energy Justice Network, and also youth groups GirlGov Chester County, which is comprised of high school students, and the Campus Coalition Concerning Chester, comprised of high school and university students, including a Villanova student who has been helping with publicity.

In May, the Delaware County Solid Waste Authority board held an online meeting to consider whether the county should continue its contract with Covanta when it expires in April 2022.

One resident at the meeting said she wears a KN95 mask and goggles when she gardens, not for protection against the coronavirus but against “all the chemicals that are being released in the air from all the waste being burned.” Other residents complained that trucks bring noise and smell, forcing them to close their windows, and also tear up the roads.

A Covanta representative told those in attendance that the company sympathizes with the “undue burdens” placed on Chester because of its industry, but that having an incinerator in a neighborhood is not unusual, citing a facility in Paris.

Covanta also operates a waste-to-energy plant in mostly white Plymouth Meeting. But the Chester plant is much larger — and is adding to far more polluting businesses than Plymouth Meeting has in such a small area, Mayfield notes.

“People in some communities ... can pick the battles they get involved with,” Mayfield said. “People in communities like Chester don’t have a choice. These things land on top of us.”

Mike Ewall, executive director of the Energy Justice Network, a nonprofit environmental advocacy group based in Bucks County, has known Mayfield since the early 1990s when he was at Penn State and protesting a Wheelabrator waste-to-energy incinerator in Bensalem, leading to the creation of the Energy Justice Network.

“Her passion is unparalleled,” Ewall said of Mayfield. “She’s a force of nature. She definitely moves people quite effectively.”

The two have become friends after working together so long.

“There’s just been numerous battles along the way,” Ewall said “... and we help each other with organizing protests or research.”

Ewall said he continues to help in Chester because “we know from older data that the health situation is pretty extreme,” he said, noting high rates of serious childhood asthma.

‘Needed to go away’

Mayfield is divorced, has children, and has a job working with mentally challenged people.

“I would get off work at 4 o’clock every day and attend meetings at night, or read,” Mayfield recalled. “I had to learn about the technology, I had to read about the facilities. I had to read all the DEP permits. I would do that until 1 or 2 o’clock in the morning and get up for work. That went on for 10 years straight.

“It was getting to the point that I was on the verge of some mental illness,” she continued. “I would look at children, but I wouldn’t see children anymore, but victims of pollutants. ... I needed to go away. "

Mayfield said she was getting harassing phone calls and other troubling encounters with people opposed to her advocacy. She said her house was set on fire and people broke into an office she had elsewhere in Chester City, though no one was ever charged in either episode.

She moved to California briefly to take a break, but returned and renewed her fight against Covanta a few years ago because she still has family in Chester City whom she visits a few times a week.

“There should be no qualifier that you need to live in a community to fight for it,” she said. “There are still days when I’m full of optimism, of hope. I’ve learned how to manage self-care. I know that there are other things in life. I know when to turn the phone off.”

‘I don’t fault her passion’

Paul Gilman, Covanta’s chief sustainability officer, insists that the facility’s pollution controls meet government standards. He argues that without the incinerator, all the trash would go to an even more polluting landfill.

The company’s Chester plant takes non-hazardous waste and combusts it to generate steam for electricity. Metal is extracted from the ash for recycling. Gases get filtered before being released into the atmosphere, he said.

Gilman first learned of Mayfield’s activism as far back as 1997, but met her for the first time in 2019 when they appeared together on a radio show.

“It’s perfectly OK to be an opponent of the facility, and it’s perfectly OK to be somebody who says ‘show me the data,’” Gilman said. ”I don’t fault her for her passion or her commitment. That’s a great thing.”

Gilman said Covanta’s cleaning process renders 99.9% of pollution emitted by the plant’s stack as harmless. Remaining pollutants, such as sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, and fine particulate matter, all fall well under EPA standards, he said. Responding to criticism that the plant’s pollution controls are outdated, Gilman also said the company plans to upgrade them voluntarily.

Ewall has posted presentations on YouTube and elsewhere to challenge company data. He said the Covanta plant in Chester operates under older permits and “would come nowhere close to the modern emission limit” for nitrogen oxides, for example.

Mayfield said she’ll continue to rally against the incinerator and other potential sources of pollution.

“Yes, we have done a lot of work over the years,” Mayfield said. “But we’ve still got to hit the streets.”

The Philadelphia Inquirer is one of more than 20 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push toward economic justice. See all of our reporting at