In March 2021, Bread & Roses Community Fund’s Environmental Justice Fund made $180,000 in grants to 18 grassroots groups using community organizing to promote equitable access to clean and healthy environments for communities in the Philadelphia region most impacted by environmental racism and climate change. Money for the fund was raised and distributed through Bread & Roses’ Environmental Justice Giving Project.
“When we think about environmental justice, we often think about the melting polar ice caps and changing weather, but where environmental injustice is felt most acutely is in Black and Brown neighborhoods,” says director of donor organizing Nigel Charles. A new study published in the journal Science Advances reports that across the United States, people of color breathe more hazardous air than white people and are exposed to disproportionately more environmental risks. A 2019 report by the Philadelphia Office of Sustainability found that the city’s poorest neighborhoods are as much as 22 degrees hotter because they have fewer green spaces and trees and more exposed asphalt.
Environmental Justice Fund grantees are working across the region to dismantle environmental racism by fighting health hazards, pushing for policy reform, promoting urban agriculture, and expanding access to fresh produce, clean water, and green spaces. Grantees Chester Residents Concerned for Quality Living (CRCQL, pronounced “circle”) and Energy Justice Network are collaborating to shut down the Covanta trash incinerator in the city of Chester. The country’s largest and most polluting incinerator, it burns 3,500 tons of trash and industrial waste a day, releasing toxins into the air. Chester’s rate of child hospitalization for asthma is more than three times the state average, says CRCQL chairperson Zulene Mayfield.
Currently, the two groups are pressuring Delaware County not to renew its contract with Covanta by meeting with public officials, testifying before municipalities, and holding rallies. Four Delaware County municipalities recently issued Zero Waste resolutions. More are being considered. “This is the first time we’ve had municipalities go on record saying they want the county to study alternatives to burning trash,” says Energy Justice Network executive director Mike Ewall.
Philadelphia sends 42% of its trash to incinerators in Pennsylvania—the majority goes to Chester, Ewall says. The city’s waste contracts are up for renewal in summer 2023. Working with City Council’s Committee on the Environment, Ewall drafted a bill to ban the city from contracting to burn trash or recyclables.
In Camden, Energy Justice Network and Environmental Justice Fund grantee Camden for Clear Air are gaining traction against the Covanta incinerator there. The two groups helped stop a plan to use the incinerator to power a proposed emergency microgrid for Camden’s sewage treatment plant. In March, the microgrid’s developer announced that it revised its design to run on solar, anaerobic digestion, and battery power. “It went from being the dirtiest way to power the grid to one of the cleanest,” Ewall says. Mayfield adds: “Where [Covanta] once had us all thinking we were fighting these battles alone, now we have strength in numbers.”