Chester Residents Achieve Environmental Victory; Unique Settlement for $320,000 Calls for 'Environmental Justice'
 
 
     Chester residents won a victory for their community as a year-and-a-half of negotiations came to an end and the settlement terms between Delaware County Regional Water Quality Control Authority (DELCORA), the Environmental Protection Agency, the state Department of Environmental Protection and the Public Interest Law Center (PILCOP) were announced on Dec. 18.

    Over three years ago, Chester Residents Concerned for Quality Living (CRCQL) sued DELCORA under the federal Clean Air Act alleging that DELCORA's waste processing facility in the city of Chester emitted offensive odor and noise from its incinerators.

    The EPA and the DEP joined the suit as plaintiffs alleging that DELCORA's Chester sewage plant violated federal and state air pollution control laws. At that time, according to David Sternberg, a spokesman for the EPA, the soot in the air in some of the residents, neighborhoods was more than three times its permitted level.

    DELCORA has denied any wrongdoing in the consent decree but has agreed to pay a unique and unusual penalty.

    The $ 320,000 penalty agreed to in the settlement is divided into two parts, with $ 120,000 going to the EPA and the DEP and $ 200,000 to be used as funding for a Children's Lead Poison Prevention Program in Chester.

    Chester, a poor, predominantly African-American community is home to about 90 percent of Delaware County's waste processing facilities, according to Heather Bendit, an attorney and the Development Director at PILCOP, which sued DELCORA in federal court on behalf of the residents of Chester.

    Bendit is confident that such a settlement is a good step toward environmental justice in Chester because "it is using money in an environmental action to improve the lives of the community."

    "This was a novel kind of solution," said Jerome Balter, the PILCOP attorney who negotiated the settlement for the residents. "It deals with a problem the community was having."

    An agreement that puts money and resources into the community and is interested in the health of its residents is very new but is starting to become a trend in environmental enforcement, said Sternberg.

    "This was a very difficult and sensitive four-way negotiation," said Ben Stonelake, an attorney with Blank Rome Comisky & McCauley who along with another Blank Rome attorney, Francis Crowley, represented DELCORA in the law suit.

    "The key to settling this case was agreeing on the remedy by everyone," Stonelake said. He noted that the negotiations might not have been successful without Balter's suggestion that an independent expert be used to investigate the potential problems in DELCORA's incinerators and to give recommendations regarding a feasible solution.

    Although DELCORA was not bound by the findings of the independent expert, all four parties eventually agreed to the conclusions of the investigation and the remedy proposed.

    "If we hadn't gotten the independent expert, we probably would have gone to trial," said Stonelake.

    Even though the remedy was agreed to a long time ago, the formal terms of the consent decree and the penalty still took a year-and-a-half to negotiate, according to Stonelake.

    All parties hailed the part of the penalty being diverted to the lead poisoning program, which was conceived by Balter, who has been involved with other lead poisoning programs in and around Philadelphia for about seven years.

    CRCQL, the group of Chester residents, will run the lead prevention program. This is an arrangement designed to empower the community, said Balter.

    The Chester Children's Lead Poison Prevention Program is intended not only to clean up the already contaminated residences in the town but is also designed to be an educational tool, directed at teaching parents about lead poisoning before the infants are contaminated.

    "Almost every community has so-called lead prevention programs but they are misnomers because they clean up lead from homes where kids are already poisoned," Balter said.

    This is an experimental program that truly aims at prevention by finding infants before they have been contaminated and by trying to reach, educate and help parents before their babies are even born, he said.

    "Hopefully, it will reap benefits and be a model for other places," said Stonelake.

    Most of the environmental improvements to DELCORA's two incinerators in their sewage facility have already been completed and the final work is scheduled to be finished in May 1998, according to Stonelake.

    A. J. D'Angelo, the attorney who negotiated the settlement terms for the EPA, was on vacation and could not be reached for comment.
 
 
 

Copyright 1997 Legal Communications, Ltd.
The Legal Intelligencer
December 24, 1997 Wednesday
SECTION: SUBURBAN EDITION; chest; Pg. 5
BYLINE: By Victoria Rivkin, Special to The Legal