Residents Oppose Proposed Toxic-Waste Facility in Suburban Philadelphia
By J. Leslie (Published October 2015 by Socialist Organizer)
An Israeli-based company, Elcon Recycling Services, proposes to a build liquid hazardous waste-processing facility in the blue-collar, working class section of Lower Bucks County just outside of Philadelphia. The plant, which would process waste from the pharmaceutical and chemical industries, would be located near the banks of the Delaware River on the site of the old US Steel Fairless works.
The State Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) rejected the first application in February because of a lack documentation regarding whether the proposed plant is in the river’s flood zone. In the first round of community comments, residents and elected officials, on both sides of the river, raised safety concerns and questioned the need for the facility. Additional concerns were expressed about what the transportation routes for waste would be. A phase-one permit was resubmitted by Elcon in May 2015, and a public hearing was held in Bucks County on September 30.
It’s not clear that Elcon’s assurances of a safely operating plant can be believed based on their record in Israel. Elcon was found to have disposed of hypersaline waste (waste with a high salt content), which contained unacceptably high levels of hazardous substances, in evaporation ponds. Elcon, whose chairman is a former director of the Israeli Environmental Protection Ministry, has defended the practice of burying what they term “gray waste.” The Israeli Environmental Protection Ministry has reportedly told Elcon to shut down their facility in Haifa Bay in their effort to reduce pollution in that area. So far, the PA DEP has refused to consider Elcon’s track record in Israel as part of the permitting process.
Fracking and water in Pennsylvania
Destruction of safe drinking water is a global problem made worse by climate change-driven drought and the blind greed of a profit-driven capitalist system. Waste treatment itself isn’t the problem. What is at issue is the efficacy of the treatment and the potential destruction of the water that working people depend on for irrigation, drinking and cooking. Without safe water, life on earth is impossible. In Pennsylvania, the issue of clean water is crucial. Fracking and other pollution-producing industries are subjected to minimal regulation, which opens the door to dumping and corner-cutting by companies.
In recent years, Pennsylvania has experienced an energy boom based on fracking, also known as hydraulic fracturing. Fracking is a process for removing natural gas from shale deposits deep in the earth. It requires the pumping of a mixture of water and chemicals to release the gas from the shale. Millions of gallons of water are used in this process. Approximately 30% of the water used in fracking returns to the surface. This presents two problems. The liquid that flows back to the surface, called “flowback,” contains salts, radioactive particles and toxic chemicals. This “flowback” water is difficult to treat, and companies very often pump the water into deep injection wells rather than remove the contaminants. Accidental spills of “flowback” water have fouled creeks and streams that are tributaries of Pennsylvania’s rivers. The water that remains underground is similarly contaminated. Well water in areas where fracking occurs has been found to contain methane gas and dangerous chemicals.
Elcon has promised not to process fracking water at the proposed facility, but this could change if the company decides later that processing fracking water is profitable.
At a public hearing of the DEP on September 30, environmental and community activists, as well as elected officials from both New Jersey and Pennsylvania, spoke against the waste treatment plant. Representatives of the Building Trades also spoke touting the jobs to be created by the construction and operation of the plant.
Speaking during the hearing, Russel Zerbo of the Clean Air Council, said, “Morrisville’s air quality is already poor and exposes low-income and minority populations to toxic air pollution. The Wheelabrator Falls waste incinerator, including trash and tires, is adjacent to the proposed site. Within three miles there are over 48,000 residents, half of whom are minorities, and 34% live under the poverty line.”
Environment, jobs and the economy
Socialists are not opposed to job creation and oppose zero-growth solutions that envision a socialism based on scarcity and discount the meeting of human needs. Scarcity is counterposed to any concept of socialism based on socialist democracy. Human needs can and must be met through production for human needs, economic planning, the democratic use of technology and the cutting of the work week with no loss in pay. Some eco-socialists advocate for a zero-growth and think that working people have to be told to “make do with less.” Do we just tell people without clean water and sanitation that they don’t count?
More than a billion people worldwide have no safe sources of drinking water, and more than 3 million die of annually because a lack of clean water. More than 4,000 children die of hunger daily, and an additional 29,000 die of preventable diseases. An estimated 2.5 billion people lack access to adequate sewerage treatment. More than 1.1 billion people do not have access to electricity, and the majority of those without electricity live in sub-Saharan Africa. About 2.5 million globally subsist on less than $2 a day.
Capitalism is killing the planet
The profit motive makes the capitalist system toxic. No matter what the environmental regulations are, the logic of the system will be for the bosses to cut corners in order to increase profits. Whether it is climate change due to human industrial activity or the dumping of toxic waste that endangers communities, the interests of the majority will always take a back seat the interests of the rich and powerful. Capitalism is literally killing the planet and all life on it. The struggle to save the planet requires internationalism.
There can be no solution to the environmental crisis under capitalism. We need system change, not climate change. We need clean water for all! It will take the mass activity of the working class against environmental destruction, and the overthrow of the capitalist system, to save life on earth.
Ramat Hovav Industrial Zone in southern Israel is the location of much of Israel’s heavy industry. Waste disposal at Ramat Hovav is a haphazard affair with toxics disposed of in open evaporation ponds that leach waste into the groundwater and release dangerous vapors into the air.
Israel dumps in the West Bank
To avoid the high cost of legally disposing of waste at Ramat Hovav, many Israeli companies illegally dump asbestos, construction waste and toxic chemicals in the occupied West Bank. Lack of regulation and official corruption by PA officials have created a situation where dumping occurs. Dumping waste in the West Bank is far less expensive than disposal in Israeli waste sites.
The Deputy Director of the Palestinian Environmental Authority, Jamil Mtoor, said, “The Israelis are taking advantage of extremely poor individuals with large families to support and with limited sources of income, in a society with high rates of unemployment.” Of course, because of the way the Israeli occupation regime has carved up the West Bank, the ability of Palestinian officials to enforce environmental laws is limited.
Many manufacturing concerns have moved from Israel to illegal West Bank settlements to avoid regulation of waste disposal. Settlements regularly dump waste and garbage into waterways and fields with a negative impact on surrounding Palestinian communities. Cancer rates in some West Bank communities are up to 10 times the normal rate according to Palestinian doctors.
The danger posed to the underground aquifer in the West Bank, as hazardous toxins like lead, cadmium, mercury and arsenic leach into groundwater is immense — and will effect both Israelis and Palestinians. Control of scarce water sources is a central aspect of the Israel’s de-facto annexation of Palestinian land. The Syrian civil war was in part sparked by the struggles of drought stricken farmers going against the Assad regime.