Air pollution plagues Philadelphia-Camden-Wilmington metro area communities of color

People of color are 2.4 times as likely as white residents to live in areas with the highest respiratory risk from air pollution.
CAMDEN, New Jersey (WPVI) -- On ninety-year-old Lula Williams' street in the Waterfront South neighborhood of Camden, toxins fill the air and dust churned out by nearby factories gathers on cars and porches. Nobody dares to open their windows or spend too much time outside.

"Most days you can hardly breathe," Williams said. "It's a dumping ground."

Her neighbors agreed, sharing stories of foul odors and soot-covered steps. They are trapped inside an industrial ring, surrounded by dozens of chemical-spewing facilities including a cement plant, sewage treatment plant and trash incinerator.

The particulate matter swirling in Waterfront South's air isn't just an annoyance: It affects residents' health. Williams and her neighbors are at increased risk for diseases like asthma, Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease and cancer, according to a 6abc analysis of data from the Environmental Protection Agency. Of the Philadelphia-Camden-Wilmington metro area's 4,306 Census block groups, theirs has by far the highest respiratory risk from air pollution.

"It's only by the grace of God that we all here right now," Williams said.

"They are inordinately affected, more so than the rest of the city, because they are the epicenter of it," said Roy Jones, local activist and founder of the National Institute of Healthy Human Spaces.

Just a couple of miles away in downtown Camden, the air is cleaner and the neighborhood has been revitalized. The city has prioritized cleaning up the entertainment district and the area around Rutgers University, Williams and her neighbors explained. But in Waterfront South -- which is 94 percent nonwhite and has a median income of $23,520 -- they've been left behind.

"Down there, it's beautiful," Williams said. "Up here, we lost."

Pollution flows to the 'area of least resistance'

It's no coincidence that Williams and her neighbors bear the brunt of the region's pollution: Across the tri-state metro area, people of color are 2.4 times as likely as white residents to live in areas with the highest respiratory risk from air pollution, the 6abc data analysis found. Nearly two thirds of Black residents and more than half of Latino residents live in these areas, compared to less than a quarter of white residents.

"They put all this dump in Waterfront South where the poor people at, 'cause they didn't want it there," Williams said.

But experts say it's about more than poverty, blaming environmental racism for the disproportionate pollution of neighborhoods like Waterfront South.

"None of this would exist in Cherry Hill," Jones said. "It wouldn't even exist in the poorest white community, period. They just wouldn't allow it."

Energy Justice Network Executive Director Mike Ewall agrees. He's been working to shut down trash incinerators in the Delaware Valley for 30 years.

"When we looked at over 10,000 dirty energy and waste facilities in our database at once, we found that race is more of a factor than class," Ewall said. "When you look at the biggest of them, the most polluting of them, the ones with the weakest enforcement and the most violations, the clustering of facilities... there are much more serious concentrations in communities of color."

The inequitable placement of polluting facilities has historical roots, Ewall added. In 1984, the California Waste Management Board commissioned public relations firm Cerrell Associates to figure out how to overcome community opposition to trash incinerators. The company produced a report outlining which demographic groups were least likely to resist these facilities in their communities. While it didn't name people of color explicitly, it listed demographic groups that overlap heavily with Black and Latino communities, such as people who are Catholic and those with an education level of high school or below.

"Many of them line up with communities of color," Ewall said. "They might as well put a target on the back of those communities."

The Cerrell Associates report has become the playbook for polluting industries, Ewall said, adding that the largest trash incinerator in the country is located in a majority Black community outside Philadelphia. The Delaware Valley Resource Recovery Facility sits in Chester, where 83 percent of residents are people of color and nearly a third live below the poverty line.

"You don't see them trying to build these kinds of facilities on the Main Line, just outside of Philadelphia," Ewall said. "There's a reason they go to Chester, there's a reason they go to Camden, because they've mapped this out and figured it out already."

Waterfront South residents have seen this phenomenon firsthand. They say their neighbors mount less resistance in part because they tend to rent their homes, rather than owning them.

Camden resident Edward Sheppard grew up in Waterfront South, and his mother still lives there. He said the neighborhood continues to get the most pollution because it is "the area of least resistance."

"You have the trash-to-steam place that they literally fought in Pennsauken not to have in that area, so it winds up in Camden," added Sheppard's sister Valerie Baylor.

"We live in a poor community with no voice," Williams said. "And if you don't have a voice, enough people don't support you, you're wasting your time."

'We are suffering for everybody else's comfort'

In Camden and Chester's industrial neighborhoods, residents feel the effects of the air pollution on their health.

Williams has raised nine children in Waterfront South. Her neighbor Rose Johnson has raised six -- three of whom have asthma. Williams and Johnson said most of the children at a nearby school have asthma, and many residents struggle with other respiratory issues.

Zulene Mayfield, chair of Chester Residents Concerned for Quality Living, has lost over a dozen family members to cancer, including her mother, sister, brother, uncle and cousin. All of them lived in Chester.

"There are no expendable people, I'm not expendable," Mayfield said. "Why should I have to give up 10, 15 years of my life for other people's comfort?"

Chester is among the areas with the highest cancer risk from air pollution in the Philadelphia-Camden-Wilmington metro area, according to the 6abc analysis.

"There is nobody, from the very young to the very old, that is not impacted by just not having clean air to breathe and a clean environment," Mayfield said.

The Coronavirus pandemic has only magnified the issue, since populations with underlying respiratory conditions are more vulnerable to severe disease and death from COVID-19. The pandemic has disproportionately affected people of color across the country, and Chester's poor air quality has exacerbated the disparity in Mayfield's community, she said. She added that many Chester residents are service workers facing increased exposure to the virus.

"We are suffering for everybody else's comfort," Mayfield said.

In addition to polluting facilities' health impacts, Mayfield and Jones noted their financial consequences, such as plummeting home values.

"If you go to the waterfront and look towards Philly, those are million dollar homes on the other side in Philly," Jones said. "What's the problem here? Why do we have polluting facilities on our waterfront?"

Fighting for clean air

Activists like Mayfield and Jones have been working for decades to reduce pollution in their communities and increase enforcement of environmental regulations. In Camden, county and state officials say they are also committed to the fight.

"For far too long, low-income and minority communities have borne a disproportionate burden of the pollution that we all together create," said New Jersey Commissioner of Environmental Protection Shawn LaTourette. "If what you want to do is address and remedy the outcomes of systemic environmental racism, you have to change the system itself."

New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) officials say they are changing the system in their state.

"The Administration of Governor Murphy has taken strong and decisive actions to address the longstanding environmental and public health concerns of environmental justice communities across the state, including Camden and its Waterfront South neighborhood," wrote DEP spokesperson Lawrence Hajna.

Last year, New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy signed the nation's first environmental justice law, requiring the DEP to consider health and environmental impact of facilities in communities like Waterfront South and allowing the agency to limit future placement and expansion of facilities affecting these neighborhoods.

Previously, the DEP had only evaluated individual facilities in isolation, without considering the cumulative effects of multiple facilities located in a single community, Commissioner LaTourette explained. Last year's environmental justice law made New Jersey the first state in the country to change this approach, he added. The law also requires "meaningful involvement" of the community in decisions that affect their health, mandating public notice and a public hearing when a polluting facility applies for a permit. The DEP is now writing rules to put the law into action and will begin enforcing them next year.

Waste management company Covanta, which operates the trash incinerators in Waterfront South and Chester, advocated for this legislation and is working with the DEP to implement it, said Chief Sustainability Officer Paul Gilman.

"We're completely in concert with the notion that these communities need special attention," Gilman said. He added that Covanta is aware of the Camden and Chester facilities' impacts on their neighbors and that the company has been working to reduce its emissions.

Covanta has committed to replacing and upgrading anti-pollution equipment in its Camden facility and is currently installing a new system to reduce emissions in its Chester plant, Gilman said. He added that the company has spent hundreds of millions of dollars to improve its facilities' performance and estimates the upgrades in Camden will cost $67 million.

But Gilman said Covanta's efforts are only part of the solution, because their facilities are only part of the problem.

"We've got to be looking to the other emitters," Gilman said. "We have been decreasing our emissions, and we continue to make that commitment. And we'd love it if others would join us."

The Camden County Municipal Utilities Authority (CCMUA), a sewage treatment plant just down the street from Williams' house, has also been working to mitigate its impact on Waterfront South residents, said Executive Director Scott Schreiber.

"It's the highest priority of the Authority," Schreiber said. "It is foundational to who we are as an organization." He noted that the CCMUA has spent more than $100 million over the past 20 years to reduce emissions and odors from the facility.

City, county and state agencies are working together to regulate air pollution in Camden -- for example, by sending DEP inspectors out with local police to track down "untoward" practices that degrade air quality, Commissioner LaTourette said. The DEP also partners with local government and nonprofit partners through its Community Collaborative Initiative to promote quality of life in places like Waterfront South.

Still, Waterfront South residents say they have not seen their air quality improve. Williams recalls DEP officials coming to the neighborhood to measure contaminants and install sensors to record the facilities' toxic output.

"A whole lot of things were proven that we were breathing in, but nothing was really done," Williams said.

DEP spokesperson Hajna wrote that many of the problems facing Waterfront South will not be fixed overnight, but that the DEP is "absolutely committed to getting the job done."

Community members and activists in Camden and Chester are also committed to the cause -- for them, the issue is personal and the stakes are high.

"We fight and we get up here and we try to do the best we can, in order that we can survive," Williams said.

This report was produced with data from the Equity Report, a tool created by data journalists at Action News and our ABC-Owned Television Stations across the country. Now this database is available to officials working on solutions and to the public. You can go to https://ouramericaabc.com/equity-report to find the Equity Report. There you will be able to review equity data from various regions including the Philadelphia area. You will have access to local data measuring equity in five categories: Housing, Health, Education, Policing and Environment.
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