CHESTER, Pa. — After they’re thrown away in Ocean City, empty cups of Thrasher’s fries, candy wrappers and old beach toys make their way 130 miles north to the town of Chester, Pennsylvania, where they are incinerated.
The arrangement has been in place for nearly a decade, since two years after the beach town stopped recycling in 2010, embracing instead what officials call the new recycling — burning trash to create energy.
But incinerators like the one in Chester, and one in Baltimore, are facing intense criticism for the pollutants they emit. And environmentalists say the trash-burning operation just adds to the environmental and socioeconomic woes besetting Chester, a majority-Black community where the poverty rate is nearly three times the national average.
Ocean City’s contract with the Chester incinerator, operated by waste management company Covanta, expires at the end of December, and environmental groups hope the town will not renew it. They’re urging vacationers to boycott Ocean City until the town reinstates recycling and starts sending its waste to a local landfill instead.
“Why should 33,000 people bear the brunt of other communities’ comfort?” said Zulene Mayfield, founder of Chester Residents Concerned for Quality Living. “Right now, it’s comfortable for Ocean City to send it to Chester.”
The campaign has placed Ocean City, a beach town that swells in the summertime to become one of Maryland’s largest cities, at the center of a bitter environmental debate, and in the crosshairs of determined environmentalists, from lifelong activists to high school students.
But they face an uphill battle. A new contract with higher prices for Ocean City is likely to be signed in July, said Ocean City City Clerk Diana Chavis. And the beach town, booming with pandemic-weary travelers, appears undeterred.
“I feel like it is recycling and it’s producing energy,” she said. “I’ve been to the landfill and I see what it looks like — and I’d rather not have that.”
Ocean City Mayor Rick Meehan’s spokesperson and several other town officials did not respond to requests for comment for this story, except to confirm that the town’s contract with Covanta will expire in December.
“I think what we do works. It saves the town quite a bit of money,” Meehan said during a preelection town hall last year.
Still, some residents take matters into their own hands, driving a few miles off the peninsula to dump recyclables at a county drop-off site, and setting up a private composting program, all in the name of diverting waste from Covanta’s fires.
‘See, hear and smell’
Lined with narrow brick homes with spacious front porches, Thurlow Street in Chester ends before a chain-link fence, beyond which looms the white Covanta incinerator building and its towering exhaust stack.
This is where Mayfield arranged a meeting with the man in charge of the struggling city’s finances on a cloudy Saturday in June. She wanted to make sure he could see — and smell — the beast she’s been battling for nearly 30 years.
As Michael T. Doweary, who’s managing the city’s receivership, spoke to the assembled crowd of about 15, the odor of garbage wafted toward the group. Every few minutes, a truck roared down the drive less than a football field away, toward the incinerator and its neighbor — a regional wastewater treatment plant.
“When they originally started, they would come down this street,” Mayfield told him. “That was one of the triggers for our group forming, basically because of the things that we could see, hear and smell.”
Back then, Mayfield and her neighbors didn’t know as much about the particulate matter, nitrogen oxides and dioxins escaping the plant’s smokestack. But the plant’s impact on their livelihoods was clear. They thought twice about opening windows on cool spring days, about sitting on porches to converse with neighbors — all because of the foul smell and stream of garbage trucks.
“Certain times of the day — the morning — the air is pathetic,” said Ruth Richardson, a longtime resident. “You can really smell all the waste coming through all the homes.”
Comparing landfills and incinerators requires a difficult calculus: weighing globe-warming methane emissions from burying trash against harmful dioxins and other chemicals released by burning it.
Companies that run incinerators, which they dub waste-to-energy plants, tout their programs to recycle metals extracted from burned trash, and to create energy from the steam produced.
But environmental groups argue the energy generation is less efficient and more polluting than other energy sources, even coal. At the end, the ash heads for landfills anyway. And incinerator emissions, which can exacerbate asthma and other health conditions, cause unique harm for the neighborhoods where they are located — often, like Chester, communities of color.
In the case of Ocean City, activists are promoting the use of the Worcester County landfill, which offers a rebate for recyclables. In a recent month, the county charged localities such as Snow Hill and Berlin an average of $71.54 per ton to landfill their trash, although that fee doesn’t include trucking to the landfill. Meanwhile, Ocean City is in talks to pay Covanta $88 per ton to haul its garbage from the 65th Street transfer station up to Chester, according to emails obtained through a public information request by The Energy Justice Network and The Baltimore Sun.
That cost could increase steadily through 2026, when it would reach $97.14 per ton, said Hal Adkins, the city’s public works director, in one email. Adkins could not be reached for comment on the emails.
During the town hall last year, Meehan and the five members in attendance from Ocean City’s seven-person council said they approved of the town’s incineration contract. Some called it a recycling program, although plastics and other recyclable materials aren’t rescued from the incinerator.
Mostly, though, the officials cited cost savings from doing business with Covanta, and flagging demand for recyclables overseas. Councilman Frank Knight said it saves an estimated $1.5 million a year.
“I would not support bringing back traditional recycling,” Meehan said in the town hall, adding that the contract with Covanta allowed Ocean City to forego trash trucks required to transport waste to the landfill.
The officials’ pronouncements at the town hall frustrated Assateague Coastkeeper Kathy Phillips.
“I’m embarrassed to say I’m from Ocean City when I watch that,” she said. “That is just total denial on their part, and they need to go spend a month up in Chester, Pennsylvania.”
‘They figure they can put anything in Chester’
In 1986, with Philadelphia-area landfills nearing capacity, Delaware County contracted with Westinghouse to build a waste-to-steam plant in Chester.
By then, Chester’s population had been diminished by a postwar flight to the suburbs and a rapid loss of industrial jobs, and the city was feeling the effects.
The Rev. Commodore Harris, a police sergeant in Chester, lambasted the county for the deal, writing: “They figure they can put anything in Chester because it’s poor and destitute ... [it’s] mostly black, and they figure they’re just going to come in here to dump their waste ... and let the toxic fumes engulf the people.”
The plant opened in 1991, and Mayfield and others have been fighting it ever since.
While Ocean City represents just 2% of the waste heading to the incinerator, activists say the call for a boycott is also about raising awareness. The campaign even attracted the support of high school students in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, including Pujitha Masireddy, a Chester County 17-year-old.
She said some other students have talked with her about skipping trips to the beach. She was concerned, however, about Facebook comments she read calling for a reverse boycott of Chester, including one that asked: “Why does everything have to be about communities of color?”
”I was a little bit taken aback, but that’s just one of the hurdles that we need to overcome,” Masireddy said.
Of late, the plant has had some troubles. Online records show it was fined $73,000 in April by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection.
The fine covered a series of violations from 2017 to 2020, during which monitoring for carbon monoxide was found several times to be inadequate. For two days last June, the plant lost power to its emissions controls. Plant officials said they immediately quenched the burning trash, but environmental officials estimated that tons of nitrogen oxide, sulfur oxide and carbon monoxide escaped nonetheless.
Covanta spokesman James Regan said the power loss was out of the plant’s control, and sometimes the near-continuous emissions monitoring required by law isn’t possible due to maintenance and other needs. He maintained the plant is safe for the community, and a way to ease methane emissions until better waste disposal solutions are developed.
“In 2021, nobody wants anything with a stack,” Regan said. “We all want clean renewable energy sources, waste to be 100% recyclable, but, you know, the reality of the situation is that we’re really not there yet.”
‘Starving the beast’
Twice a week, Garvey Heiderman picks up bins full of corn husks, pizza slices and shrimp tails from five of Ocean City’s most popular restaurants with his truck.
He hauls them across Assawoman Bay to a massive compost pile on a Bishopville farm.
The donation-funded program is in only its third year, but Heiderman, who owns the Hobbit Restaurant, alongside Go Green OC founder Josh Chamberlain, is hoping to expand it. There’s already a waitlist of interested restaurants, they said. Even some locals have signed on to dump household food waste into the restaurant bins.
“If we really get businesses involved, we could see a huge reduction in trash, and that’s what the incinerator relies on,” Chamberlain said. “They rely on Ocean City, Maryland, in the summer, because everywhere around them people go on vacation and there’s a dip in the waste stream.”
The duo say they don’t support a boycott, though they sympathize with the people of Chester. They worry it would hurt beach businesses still reeling from COVID-19, and might not stop the city from incinerating, they said.
“I’m much more of a positive, proactive guy, like: ‘Hey, let’s create a solution to the problem. Let’s not just throw people under the bus,’” Heiderman said.
Meanwhile, some Ocean City locals are determined to wrest recyclable goods from the flames, so much so that they drive several miles to a Walmart in Berlin, where they divvy plastics, glassware and paper goods among a series of green dumpsters.
Among them is Rich Brown, who said he carts his recyclables there partially from force of habit.
”We still want to recycle, because we’ve been recycling for what? Thirty years?” he said.
Curbside recycling might be easier, he said. But, at least for now, the Walmart isn’t inconvenient, not the least because a shopping trip is usually needed anyhow.
In Baltimore, activists dismayed by the city’s decision last year to sign another 10-year contract with the Wheelabrator plant in Westport, are taking a similar approach, which they’ve dubbed “starving the beast,” said Shashawnda Campbell, member of the South Baltimore Community Land Trust.
At the moment, that includes pushing for the construction of a composting facility to service Baltimore.
Campbell said she’s continued to fight for environmental solutions in part because she knows what it’s like to live in a community like Chester. She recalled walking into a classroom at her former high school, and watching most of the children raise their hands when asked who was suffering from asthma.
“At the end of the day,” she said, “all of these communities have to stand together.”