Waste Treatment Facilities in Chester

by Andy Murray, SPEEC
slightly updated by Mike Ewall

[A more updated account of what is going on with these facilities can be found in this article.]

The waste treatment facilities began proliferating in Chester in the 1980s. Even at that point, Chester was home to many polluting industries. It was surrounded by industries like Witco Chemical and Scott Paper. British Petroleum and Sunoco Oil Companies had oil refineries to the east of Chester. For many years, DELCORA, the wastewater treatment facility for Delaware County had operated in Chester. In 1986, the LCA Leasing Corporation began operating a waste transfer station in Chester that brought hundreds of truckloads of trash into Chester each day. In 1987, despite objections from residents and the Chester City Council, the Delaware County Council and Westinghouse joined forces to place the largest trash incinerator in the state (7th largest in the nation) in Chester. In 1993, two years after the Westinghouse incinerator began operating in Chester, Thermal Pure Systems began operating an infectious medical waste autoclave in Chester right next to Westinghouse.
At this point, we want to introduce you to some of the existing waste management facilities in Chester and some that are applying to come to Chester. It's important to understand how big these facilities are, the kinds of trash they handle and the pollutants they emit. It's also just as crucial that you understand that the way in which these facilities have been operated has demonstrated a serious disregard for the health and safety of the residents of Chester.

The Chester Incinerator
One of the heaviest polluting facilities in Chester is the Delaware Resource Recovery Facility built and originally operated by Westinghouse until 1997. It is permitted to burn 2,688 tons of trash per day. The immediate question that comes to mind is where does all the trash come from, and the answer is, although it is all burned in Chester, it comes from all over the East Coast.
Initially, efforts were made to get 100% of the trash generated in Philadelphia to fuel the incinerator, but negotiations quickly broke off. In order to keep the Westinghouse Incinerator supplied, Delaware County Council passed a resolution that 100% of the trash generated in Delaware County would be sent to the Westinghouse Incinerator. In addition to burning all of Delaware County's trash, Westinghouse burns trash from all over Pennsylvania, NJ, NY, DE and OH.
The Westinghouse Incinerator is a mass-burn facility, which means the trash is not sorted before it is burned. The trash is driven in by trucks and dumped on the tipping floor, which is basically an aircraft hangar full of trash. They keep excess trash on the floor so they won't have to shut the furnace down if the trucks cannot run for some reason. When I took a tour of Westinghouse, their representative told me the trash was sorted before it was burned, but if you go out on to the tipping floor, you'll see they move the trash around with front-end loaders, which seem efficient, but they're not what could be termed sorting machines.
The heat from the burning trash is used to produce steam which in turn generates 72 megawatts of power which is then sold to the Atlantic City Electric Company. After the trash is burned there are two problems: ash on the bottom of the furnace and polluted air. The hot air coming out of the furnace is heavily polluted because they didn't sort any of the trash before they burned it. As the air winds through the rest of the incinerator it cools and very fine ash, called fly ash, settles out and will be landfilled with the bottom ash from the furnace. There are a series of treatments the air must go through before it's released, but despite these treatments, Westinghouse still emits air polluted with HCl, volatile organic compounds, dioxins, nitrous oxides which react to form ozone, sulfur oxides, lead and other heavy metals.
There have been many examples of Westinghouse's disregard for the community of Chester. Since the incinerator began operating, Westinghouse has been fined over $400,000 for continually being in excess of the levels of CO and SO2 for which it is permitted. These continuous violations exemplify the way in which Westinghouse operates but they are not the only examples. Another classic example came in 1994 when Westinghouse discovered it had misplaced a dangerous amount of radioactive Cesium-137. The Cesium, which functioned as part of a gauge in the incinerator, was contained in a lead box, but Westinghouse admits that the Cesium inside the box is radioactive enough to prove fatal if someone were to be exposed to it for as little as six hours. Westinghouse still has no idea if what happened to the Cesium.
In April 1997, American Ref-Fuel (50% owned by BFI, the world's 2nd largest waste corporation) purchased the facility from Waste Resource Energy Inc., a subsidiary of Westinghouse Electric Corp.

DELCORA Waste Treatment Facility
Another major polluting facility in Chester is the DELCORA Wastewater Treatment Facility.
DELCORA treats 36 million gallons of wastewater and sewage per day. 90 percent of Delaware County's sewage and wastewater goes to DELCORA, but this accounts for only 20 percent of DELCORA's capacity. The other 80 percent comes from industries like Scott Paper, Sunoco and British Petroleum Oil Refineries. This industrial wastewater is particularly high in petroleum and benzene content.
During the wastewater treatment process, the water is cleaned with the help of gravity and microorganisms which try to digest some of the organic waste in the water. Wastewater influent comes into the treatment center and flows into a series of large tanks which widen allowing the water to slow down and allowing a thick sludge to settle out. This technique isn't the only one used to clean the water, but it's enough to give you an idea of what some of the problems with wastewater treatment. Namely once the water is cleaned, there is a whole lot of sludge that has to be dealt with. To some degree the sludge can be digested aerobically and then anaerobically by microorganisms, but to really digest the stuff well would take a long time. So DELCORA burns the sludge that it removes from the sewage and wastewater.
When DELCORA burns the sludge it emits some of the same pollutants as Westinghouse. Namely HCl, sulfur oxides, nitrous oxides, dioxins, volatile organic compounds and others. However, the most serious pollutant from DELCORA is arsenic. A 1995 EPA risk-assessment study found arsenic levels in Chester to be unsafe and they traced the high levels of arsenic to DELCORA.
Keep in mind again that the waste treated in Chester isn't simply Chester's waste. In DELCORA's case the wastewater is coming from all over Delaware County and industries like Scott Paper, Sunoco and BP. Furthermore, when it comes to sludge DELCORA burns the sludge from four other wastewater facilities in addition to the sludge it produces.

Thermal Pure Industries
The newest waste treatment facility to begin operating in Chester is Thermal Pure Systems, an infectious medical waste treatment facility which treats waste coming from hospitals, morgues, doctors' offices and veterinarians. The waste treated include body parts, bloody bandages, syringes; anything that is considered a biohazard.
Thermal Pure is an autoclave and autoclaving is a relatively new industry with few regulations. Autoclaving sterilizes infectious medical waste using steam and pressure so the waste can either be landfilled or incinerated.
When you say sterilization, Thermal Pure doesn't sound all that bad. In fact the gentleman who operates Thermal Pure is fond of saying that it's just like sterilizing baby bottles, the only pollution is steam. However, what we do know about Thermal Pure, is the way they operate.
An example of this came last July when something broke in the Thermal Pure Facility and they were forced to shut down one of their boilers. Thermal Pure left 33 trucks of infectious medical waste to sit, outside, unrefrigerated, in the July sun for four days. It isn't legal to keep infectious medical waste outside and unrefrigerated for more than 24 hours. Furthermore, whenever Thermal Pure goes off-line they're supposed to notify DEP, the Department of Environmental Protection, which they never did. The only way DEP found out was from residents repeatedly calling them telling them they had to send someone down to find out what was going on.
Because of this incident Thermal Pure, which has the capacity to treat 288 tons of infectious medical waste per day, is temporarily limited to treating 15 tons per day.

Soil Remediation Services
At this point, it should be clear that Chester has more than its share of waste and more than its share of waste treatment facilities. Unfortunately the Department of Environmental Protection just went ahead and permitted another facility, Soil Remediation Services, to come to Chester.
What SRS plans to do if they're allowed to is to treat 900 tons of petroleum contaminated soil each day at very high temperatures in order to "burn off" contaminants so the soil can be landfilled.
One of the problems with SRS if they are allowed to begin operating would be that "petroleum contaminated soil" is a very expansive term. Depending on what grade of petroleum the soil is contaminated with, there will be different pollutants emitted when the soil is burned. A list of the expected pollutants include particulate matter, carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide, volatile organic compounds, benzene, toluene and benzo (a) pyrene. As you can see these will only add to the levels already emitted from Westinghouse and DELCORA.

Cherokee Environmental Group
And, unless something is done, it doesn't appear that SRS will be the last facility to come to Chester. Right now, another group, the Cherokee Environmental Group has applied to for a permit to process 960 tons of contaminated soil per day. Cherokee proposes to use a process called "bio-remediation" where they will use micro-organisms to digest the contaminants in the soil. The biggest problem with permitting Cherokee is that it means another 960 tons of contamination coming into Chester each day and if the industries that are already in Chester are any indication, it also means one more poorly operated waste treatment facility.
So there are about as many pollution problems in Chester as there are waste treatment facilities. At the most basic level, you can look at Chester and see that 3 of the largest waste treatment facilities in the nation have located almost right on top of each other and right on top of one of the most densely populated residential areas in Pennsylvania. Before these facilities even got to Chester, there were heavily polluting industries. Now these facilities are bringing hundreds of tons of trash into Chester each day and adding to that pollution. Another thing to keep in mind is that many of the pollutants are common to more than one facility and because the facilities are so close together, there are serious concerns about cumulative levels of pollution. Finally, even for heavy polluting industries, these facilities are poorly operated. There have been many examples of this from each facilities. To continue to site more and more waste treatment facilities in Chester only adds to very serious health and safety risks already posed by existing facilities.

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Last modified: 26 January 1999