Energy Company Plotted Gas Plant in Small Pennsylvania Town — But No One Told Residents

Lawmakers helped with a plan to put the natural gas export facility in already polluted Chester, Pennsylvania.

An action outside of the Covanta incineration facility in Chester, PA hosted by Chester Residents Concerned for Quality Living (CRCQL) and Earth Quaker Action Team (EQAT) on June 10, 2023. This is part of EQAT's Never Vanguard campaign, highlighting the dirty investments in polluting facilities in Chester and along the Delaware River, explaining the human cost of putting profit over people and the planet. Emily Whitney for The Intercept
An action outside of the Covanta incineration facility hosted by Chester Residents Concerned for Quality Living and Earth Quaker Action Team on June 10, 2023, in Chester, Pa. Photo: Emily Whitney for The Intercept

When Zulene Mayfield received a call from a reporter last summer, she was surprised. A journalist working at Philadelphia’s public radio station had contacted her for a story about a plan to develop a liquefied natural gas facility in her hometown of Chester, Pennsylvania, a city that sits along the Delaware River just southwest of the Philadelphia International Airport.

Since 1992, Mayfield has led an environmental justice group called Chester Residents Concerned for Quality Living. She formed the group to address local concerns about the concentration of waste disposal facilities throughout the city, most notably incineration and waste treatment plants. Chester is home to one of the country’s biggest incinerators, a waste-to-energy facility owned by the Covanta corporation, which burns trash from up and down the East Coast.

The facilities, Mayfield said, were sickening residents in Chester, an overwhelmingly Black and low-income community. Over the years, Mayfield helped lead several campaigns to stop new incineration and waste treatment plants from setting up shop in Chester. So she was disturbed when she learned about a proposal for a new $6.4 billion liquefied natural gas, or LNG, facility in her backyard. Mayfield, who is deeply enmeshed in the community’s environmental health scene, had heard nothing about it until her group received a press inquiry.

“We learned about it last year by way of a reporter calling us up for a quote,” Mayfield told The Intercept. “It had not even been on our radar. We knew nothing about it, even though they had been secretly moving around in the city and throughout the state trying to get political support to bring it here.” 

An energy company called Penn America had been shopping the plan around to local and state officials for years with no notice to the community, WHYY reported last June. The LNG facility, which would pipe in natural gas, then liquify it for export, seemed to have already attracted bipartisan buy-in.

Top: Rail cars carry materials to the Trainer Refinery between the Covanta incineration facility and the block of local activist Zulene Mayfield’s abandoned house. Bottom: Zulene Mayfield speaks at an action highlighting the dirty investments in polluting facilities in Chester, Pa., on June 10, 2023.

Photos: Emily Whitney for The Intercept

Democrats in Pennsylvania had promised to cut greenhouse gas emissions, but former Gov. Tom Wolf and members of his administration met with Penn America Energy to help shepherd its plans as early as 2016. Republican lawmakers, for their part, formed the Philadelphia LNG Export Task Force in November 2022 to study plans for the proposed facility. The task force is stacked with industry executives, including one from the American Petroleum Institute, which launched a global campaign to promote liquefied natural gas as “clean” energy in 2020.

Once the plan for the LNG facility became public, community members, including Mayfield, were barred from testifying at public hearings. Instead, the task force hosted presentations by industry players, including former Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Ohio, who now co-chairs an industry-funded nonprofit advocacy group that pushes for natural gas.

The proposed facility could have terrifying consequences for a city already burdened with intense health and economic disparities brought on in part by other energy facilities like the Covanta incinerator, Mayfield said. “This thing is so scary to me,” she said of the LNG proposal. “Out of all the things we’ve ever fought outside of the incinerator, the safety issue for this thing is dangerous to me.”

With President Joe Biden intensifying the quest to make the U.S. the world’s biggest exporter of liquefied natural gas, similar scenes are playing out in old industry towns across the nation. Residents in Florida’s North Port St. Joe were surprised last year when they learned that their efforts to restore the community were running up against secret plans by officials and energy executives to build a new liquefied natural gas facility. Environmental groups failed to stop another liquefied natural gas facility in Louisiana’s Plaquemines Parish, south of New Orleans. And community organizers in Gibbstown, New Jersey, across the river from Chester, have been fighting another proposed liquefied natural gas export terminal since 2019; the project is currently on hold after a federal agency declined to renew its permit earlier this year.

The Biden administration has amplified calls to expand the production of liquefied natural gas to ease a shortage in Europe following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The Republican lawmaker who started the task force to explore the proposed liquefied natural gas plan in Chester said she did so after the Russian invasion with hopes that Pennsylvania could help fill the void. Some environmental groups, though, have described the Ukraine war as a false pretense to ramp up fossil fuel production. The groups criticized Biden for echoing calls to boost liquefied natural gas production made by former President Donald Trump and leaving Trump-era regulatory rollbacks in place.


Ravaged by Covid-19, Polluted Communities Demand Environmental Justice

Biden’s stance on liquefied natural gas production has chafed climate groups that had been hopeful about his ambitious climate platform in the 2020 presidential campaign. As a candidate, Biden promised to put $2 trillion in climate investments to move the country toward net-zero emissions, fix crumbling public infrastructure, and create an office in the Department of Justice to address the disparate impacts of climate change. Instead, Biden has pushed for major carveouts for the fossil fuel industry in the Inflation Reduction Act’s $370 billion clean energy subsidies.

His latest calls to expand production have frustrated some environmental groups and members of Congress, who have pointed to the potential for adverse effects on minority communities and poor neighborhoods. “This will only be exacerbated with the addition of the proposed projects,” more than 40 members of Congress wrote in a May 8 letter to the White House Council on Environmental Quality. 

A mother of five walks with her children near the Covanta incineration facility in Chester, PA on June 28, 2023. All of her children have asthma but their conditions worsened since moving from one area of Chester to this block a few years ago. Emily Whitney for The Intercept

A mother of five walks with her children near the Covanta incineration facility in Chester, Pa., on June 28, 2023. All of her children have asthma, but their conditions worsened since moving from one area of Chester to this block a few years ago.

Photo: Emily Whitney for The Intercept

“It’s definitely not a clean energy alternative,” said Itai Vardi, the research and communications manager at the Energy and Policy Institute, a utility and fossil fuel watchdog. “Those living near LNG facilities are front-line communities that suffer the direct impact of this LNG boom that is backed by the current administration.”

Biden’s push to increase liquefied natural gas exports runs counter to his climate policy, Vardi added. Increased liquefied natural gas exports have also been shown to raise the overall price of gas for domestic customers, contributing to higher gas utility bills.

“Increasing and encouraging LNG exports runs counter to the very nice talk of decarbonizing the U.S. economy and supposedly helping other countries in their efforts to decarbonize,” Vardi said. “At the same time, boosting LNG for export is a very stark contradiction.”

For some climate advocates, it’s been difficult not to notice that controversial projects like the proposed Chester LNG export facility tend to get plopped down in communities struggling with legacies of industrial pollution.

“Many of these projects are sited in and have disproportionate impacts on environmental justice communities and communities that already face disproportionate burdens with industry,” Morgan Johnson, staff attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council, told The Intercept. “It’s certainly problematic, given the administration’s expressed goals on climate and environmental justice, when these projects have impacts that are so significant on those fronts.”

Climate and Pollution Concerns

While four major environmental groups endorsed Biden last month, there’s been little evidence of major change in places like Chester. Once a major hub for shipbuilding and industry, Chester has been in receivership since 2020, filed for bankruptcy late last year, and is currently at risk of disincorporation, meaning its government would be dissolved and its boundaries erased. The city has a high poverty rate and one of the country’s worst pension underfunding crises.

And the Covanta incinerator emits more pollutants in parts per million than any similar plant in the country, according to a New School study. The federal government has documented disproportionately high levels of cancer and asthma for decades.

Mayfield and environmental advocates fighting LNG expansion in other nearby towns say Chester’s health and economic issues will only worsen if plans to construct the facility proceed.

Left/top: Founded before Philadelphia, Chester, Pa., is a historic town that was settled in 1644. Right/bottom: 1.7 miles from the Covanta incineration facility, the Trainer Refinery contributes to the air quality concerns of the surrounding towns all within a few mile stretch along the Delaware River. Photos: Emily Whitney for The Intercept

“It just carries forward this environmental racism and institutional bias towards dumping everything on the community that they think they can get away with dumping it on,” said Tracy Carluccio, deputy director of the Delaware Riverkeeper Network, which fought to stop the liquefied natural gas facility in Gibbstown and has worked with Mayfield’s Chester Residents Concerned for Quality Living to get more information about the Chester proposal. “But they can’t get away with doing it in Chester.”

The company shopping plans for an LNG facility in Chester, Penn America Energy, isn’t based in Pennsylvania at all; the firm’s headquarters is in New York City. Franc James, the CEO, started the firm in 2015 “to find new ways of unlocking more value from Pennsylvania’s vast Marcellus and Utica natural gas resources,” according to his LinkedIn.

The project would require the construction of a new gas pipeline to ship natural gas to the site for liquefaction. (Texas Eastern, a division of pipeline giant Enbridge, told The Intercept it has abandoned a plan to expand pipelines in greater Philadelphia.) Production, storage, and shipping of liquefied natural gas is more carbon intensive and increases risk for fossil fuel leaks. While liquefied natural gas gives off less carbon dioxide than both coal and oil, it still produces methane, another greenhouse gas that’s more potent than carbon dioxide.

Producing and transporting the liquified gas can create up to 10 times the carbon emissions of moving the fuel in gaseous form through a pipeline. While James has said the Chester plant would run on as much renewable power as possible, most LNG plants also use a portion of natural gas for on-site power. One environmental advocate told WHYY the proposed plant would be the largest new source of air pollution in southeast Pennsylvania.

Chester Mayor Thaddeus Kirkland and former Mayor John Linder have met numerous times with Penn America officials and said they support the LNG project in Chester because it would bring economic investment and job opportunities.

Margaret Brown in front of her home in Chester, PA on June 13, 2023 overlooking her block where in addition to her mother, eleven out of seventeen homes had residents who died of cancer—primarily lung cancer. Emily Whitney for The Intercept

Margaret Brown, a local resident in Chester, Pa., told The Intercept that 11 out of 17 homes on her block, as well as her mother, had residents who died of cancer, primarily lung cancer.

Photo: Emily Whitney for The Intercept

“As Mayor I feel that it is important to explore every possible avenue that would lead to more businesses and jobs coming to the City of Chester,” Kirkland said in a statement to The Intercept. Asked about his meetings with the company, Kirkland said, “I won’t address any meeting dates, but I can say that before any decisions are made I would consider the environmental impact on the Residents of Chester.”

Chester City Council Member Stefan Roots said he won’t take a position on the proposal until he sees “more than a few artists sketches.” Roots told The Intercept, “There is no comprehensive LNG proposal to evaluate, review or consider.”

In service of its plan to ship liquefied natural gas to Europe, Asia, and Latin America, Penn America has reportedly eyed a privately owned 60-acre site on the Chester waterfront. The site’s owner, Michael Gerace, told the Philadelphia Inquirer last year he didn’t want to sell the plot and was using it for business. (Gerace did not respond to a request for comment.)

The facility’s potential proximity to Delaware River, an interstate waterway, could raise issues for other states to consider, said Carluccio of the Delaware Riverkeeper Network. Delaware state law has prohibited LNG facilities anywhere along its coastal zone since 1971 because the risks of environmental pollution are considered too dangerous. That zone includes the Delaware River where the proposed Chester site sits.

“It’s even more insidious when you realize it’s going to affect New Jersey,” Carluccio said, “and it’s going to affect Delaware.”

Darlynn Johnson, standing with her son beside the train tracks that lead to the Trainer Refinery and next to the Covanta incineration facility, tells people to wear a mask whenever they go outside.

Photo: Emily Whitney for The Intercept

“Dog and Pony Shows”

The Philadelphia LNG Export Task Force is led by state Rep. Martina White, a Republican who represents parts of far northeast Philadelphia and is secretary for the state House Republican Caucus. Other members of the group include natural gas industry executives from American Petroleum Institute Pennsylvania and EQT Corporation, the country’s largest natural gas producer. Philadelphia Gas Works, the city’s gas utility; the Port of Philadelphia, the city’s powerful building trades; and two state environmental and economic agencies are also represented on the task force. Two Democrats and one Republican from the state’s general assembly are members.

Testimony at the first two task force meetings in April and May came from fossil fuel industry leaders and lobbyists at the American Petroleum Institute, a drilling industry trade group called the Marcellus Shale Coalition, and the corporate law firm K&L Gates. Representatives for the fossil fuel transport industry also testified in support of expanding LNG exports. Former Federal Energy Regulatory Commission Chair Neil Chatterjee and a local labor leader also testified.

During his introduction at the April meeting, Pennsylvania state House Rep. Joseph Hohenstein, one of the Democrats on the task force, said White had rejected all of his recommendations for witnesses from environmental justice groups. “Perhaps we should all be concerned with answering hard truths from the communities that you’ve excluded today,” Hohenstein said. White responded that all organizations who requested to participate were allowed to submit testimony.

Democratic state Rep. Carol Kazeem, who represents Chester but is not on the task force, testified against the plan at the May hearing. Kazeem noted that despite the task force being named for Philadelphia, Chester is the prime candidate for the facility. She said the city was at risk of repeating the mistakes of its industrial history that had saddled the community with health issues.

“My community, where I still reside along with my children and family, has been promised economic salvation each time an industrial plant is proposed,” Kazeem said, mentioning Chester’s incinerator and its old paper plant. “It has happened a dozen subsequent times.”

What Chester did get, Kazeem said, was a 27 percent childhood asthma rate, a 19.3 percent infant mortality rate, an increase in health risks and illness among seniors, and loss of jobs and corporate investment. “What we didn’t get was the promise of permanent jobs, and also financial emancipation,” she said.

Despite efforts to site the project in Chester, hearings for the proposed facility have been mostly held in Philadelphia and surrounding areas. Mayfield said the location of the hearings, the task force name, and the obstruction of testimony from those opposed to the project are designed to keep Chester residents out of the loop.

Top: Standing in front of the Covanta incineration facility, Margaret Brown says she wears a mask whenever she goes outdoors. Bottom: Because Darlynn Johnson’s three older children have asthma, she says of her 1-year-old son Darriel, “I’m pretty much sure he’s going to have asthma.”

Photos: Emily Whitney for The Intercept

“This whole thing is deceptive,” Mayfield said. “Everybody knows that they’re trying to bring it to the city of Chester. Chester has never been part of Philadelphia in any stretch of the imagination. Now we’re including it.”

The project won’t move forward until the task force finishes its hearings and submits its recommendations to the new Democratic Gov. Josh Shapiro, with the report expected by November. The plan would have to clear several layers of permitting and approval at the federal and state level before construction could begin. (Shapiro’s office declined to comment.)

With community members like those in Mayfield’s group opposed to the proposed plant and barred from testifying at public hearings, Carluccio said she expects the task force to recommend that the plant move forward.

According to a Penn America project plan reported last year by WHYY, the company had originally projected a four-phase timeline, with development between 2016 and 2019, construction between 2019 and 2023, pipeline construction from 2022 to 2023, and operations from November 2023 to December 2043. People associated with Penn America, including its lobbying firm, Malady & Wooten, have contributed to campaigns for White since 2016 and Kirkland, Chester’s pro-LNG mayor, since 2018. “Penn America was greasing their wheels for building their facility in Chester,” Carluccio said. “They got outed by the fourth estate, and now they’ve slowed down their ambitious schedule that they announced right after they were outed, while this LNG Task Force carries out a year’s worth of basically holding dog and pony shows.”

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