Still a Choice: Delco Economic Development or Delco’s Burn Can

[Delco Times wouldn’t publish this update, so I’m just putting it out for public awareness anyway.]

This is a follow-up to my June 27th letter regarding the need to address incineration in Delco. I received a number of thoughtful, private comments that I want to address as fairly and respectfully as I can, yet as briefly as practical.

To summarize up front, Delco Council and the Delco Solid Waste Authority have a clear choice to be environmentally and ethically responsible in handling our waste.  And while ending the Covanta contract may not bring an immediate closure to the plant, any reduction is good, there are very affordable options for where to put our waste, and they do not need to wait to act to make it clear that Chester residents and the economic prosperity of Delco are the distinct priorities.

With that, I’ll take each point individually.

First, it was noted that Delco delivers only about 30% of the waste burned by Covanta and that eliminating that waste by ending the contract with Covanta would not shutter the plant.  While technically true, the reality is that Covanta does not have a lot of options for how to replace that waste stream and, frankly, any waste stream reduction is good.  If Delco believes, either ethically or environmentally, it wants to end dependence on incineration in Chester, it has the obligation to do its part, no matter how insignificant, and acting to end the Covanta contract is not insignificant.

Next, it was noted that New York and Philadelphia have spoken and they have contracts with Covanta that the plant is permitted to execute.  Again, while technically true, neither Council nor the Delco Solid Waste Authority is without a voice in protecting its economy or its residents.  Both organizations can make it clear that Delco is no longer willing to make Chester our ‘burn can’ and any efforts to feed the incinerator will be challenged through every legal means necessary.

I will add here that as recently as 2019, the Philadelphia mayor’s own cabinet officer has stated that the city has decided to no longer include incineration, with or without conversion to fuel energy, as a waste diversion strategy. It’s goal is to eliminate the use of all incinerators by 2035. Clearly, the public and leaders in Philly are vulnerable to arguments against incineration.

Next, it was noted that landfills are closing.  Well, not really.  PA has 43 landfills, and with rare exception, they keep expanding, just as one near Scranton did recently, even in the face of local community opposition.  The PA DEP still granted a huge expansion.  The truth is that PA still has a glut of capacity, which is why we are still the largest importer of waste from other states.  The data for this is available — just ask.

Next, it was noted that alternatives for the volume of trash we currently send to Covanta may be harder to find and a whole lot more expensive.  However, a comparison to landfill contract pricing for Philly [available online] shows that the costs are about the same or probably cheaper when the Delco Solid Waste Authority raises its rates to support the current Delco-owned Rolling Hills landfill expansion.  And because there is no shortage of landfill space in PA, and multiple landfills within a relatively short distance of Delco, the odds of competitive rates for landfills going up is low.

And finally, if the County landfill runs out of space in 1-3 years and the choice is a private landfill at a greater distance or Covanta, municipalities looking to control costs may go to Covanta. This is a plausible scenario, but even if this happened, it is still incumbent on the county not to be the foot on the neck of Chester.  Yet, if the county pulls its waste out of Covanta and uses landfills, the long-term landfill contract, if negotiated well, should be comparable to or cheaper than Covanta, and municipalities will still want to use the county transfer stations because they are closer and cheaper.  

I note here that most of the Delco municipalities have 25 year agreements in place that all start around 2016 or 2017 where they agree to provide their waste to the Authority.  The Authority has the choice, as does the County, on where to place that waste for at least 20 years.

One overriding point of my original letter was that economic opportunity for Delco must be the priority.  Beautification and preservation are nice, but coming out of the pandemic, and raising Delco up in ways that produce lasting revenues that can pay for nice, new parks places high emphasis on identifying those core assets, like the Chester waterfront, in Delco that can bring about those economic opportunities.

A second and final point is that development must be done ethically, respecting all of the people of Delco, not just the privileged majority.  We can and must celebrate our diversity.  Our economic strengths can only build on that principle.