Bridging the Gap Between Company and Community

In communities all across North America, environmental justice (EJ), which calls for the fair treatment of all people, including those of color and the economically deprived, remains a serious concern. Consequently, community acceptance is an imperative when building or operating industrial facilities, such as power plants and energy-from-waste (EfW) plants. Covanta Energy’s Chester, Pa., EfW facility is a good example of the value of a formal approach to community affairs and EJ.

Troubles in Chester

Since 1992, the Delaware Valley Resource Recovery Facility in Chester, Pa., has processed municipal solid waste from Delaware County, Pa., and neighboring communities, generating approximately 80 MW of renewable energy. Chester’s many industrial waste facilities have long been a concern to local residents and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). In 1995, the EPA found a number of risk factors present for local residents, such as high blood lead levels, cancerous and noncancerous risks from pollution sources and air emissions, and potential health risks from eating contaminated fish. Although the study never cited unacceptable emissions directly from the EfW facility, many residents considered the findings to be evidence of its impact.

The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (PaDEP) took a number of steps to empower local communities to have a voice in the permitting process going forward, such as seeking public community meetings upon receipt of a permitting application and demonstration by the applicants that they had engaged with the community.

Moving Forward and Working Together

Companies interested in acquiring the Chester EfW facility, or building new ones in the community, dropped or modified their proposals after a Supreme Court ruling on a suit brought by Chester residents against the PaDEP, but Covanta Energy did not. The PaDEP and Covanta were aligned in believing local residents are important stakeholders.

Prior to acquisition of the Chester facility, Covanta personnel met with residents and the PaDEP. Covanta realized that in order to improve the facility’s functionality and ensure it could operate at capacity, permit modifications pertaining to how the company received and processed waste were required. Aware of the facility’s history with the community, Covanta also knew that engaging and establishing mutually acceptable permit conditions—to the community, the company, and the PaDEP—would be imperative.

Upon acquisition of the facility and submittal of applications, the PaDEP facilitated a public meeting to provide community members with important information on the scope and nature of the application. The goal was to provide a fair opportunity for the community to be involved and to comment on the company’s proposal in a timely fashion. The PaDEP solicited input from internal experts, community residents, academia, and advocacy lawyers.

Covanta quickly recognized the value of being a good neighbor as an important first step in creating an acceptable presence in Chester. Efforts were made to address all topics of concern to residents. Topic-specific placards were developed and presented over a two-day session to local residents by experts knowledgeable in the issues at hand.

With the community’s concerns in mind, Covanta also conducted an environmental review, resulting in a formal agreement with the Chester residents.

In April 1997, Covanta assumed ownership of the facility with the initial permits and in 1999 received modified permits that incorporated specific elements of Covanta’s community agreement, which had been signed earlier. Covanta developed solutions to the community’s chief concerns while retaining needed operational flexibility. These solutions included instituting engineered controls to reduce odor at the facility and reducing emission exceedances by 80%. In addition, Covanta improved safety at the facility with a 70% reduction in accidents. Covanta also implemented a number of beneficial initiatives to improve the quality of residential life in Chester, such a city cleanups, landscaping projects, and a job skills development program.

Covanta’s efforts earned the community and the company the 2000 Governor’s Award for Environmental Excellence for bridging the gap between company and community.

Today, the Delaware Valley Resource Recovery facility is operating successfully and in concert with the community. The plant not only provides an effective and environmentally safe solution to the county’s solid waste disposal needs but also generates approximately 80 MW of renewable electricity for the community.

Implementing a Successful EJ Policy

Covanta remains committed to engaging with and supporting the communities in which it has—or will have—facilities. To help fulfill this commitment, the company developed a Community Outreach and Environmental Justice Policy. The policy is consistent with the company’s sustainability objectives and has been beneficial in helping Covanta integrate and operate appropriately in potentially disadvantaged communities. Its main objective is to give residents early knowledge of specific company actions affecting their communities and the opportunity for meaningful involvement with the subsequent permit review process.

The dialogue with the community continues with Covanta participating as an active member of the Chester Environmental Partnership, a grassroots environmental organization led by the Reverend Dr. Horace Strand. A structured process, leadership, and the desire of all interested parties to address issues of concern openly and constructively have been key success factors in the effectiveness of this relationship. This approach can work for others as well. Regulators, companies, and communities that are able to find a way to work together stand the best chance of co-existing and succeeding.

John G. Waffenschmidt is vice president, Covanta Energy Environmental Science and Community Affairs.