Environmental Justice

Environmental justice is a key component of the Council’s work. For too long environmentalists have focused on the creation of benefits and reduction of harms through environmental policy, often without looking at how these benefits and harms are distributed. The harms have been allowed to accumulate in specific communities (particularly low-income and minority) which also receive few, if any, of the benefits.

That’s why the Council’s environmental justice program is a board-approved priority. For the last five years the Council has been particularly active on environmental justice issues in Wilmington and the River Ward port neighborhoods in Philadelphia. The Council is also active in southwest Philadelphia near the Philadelphia refinery where flooding and transportation issues are a major concern to the community. The Council has worked with these communities in a wide variety of ways, from organizing the public against neighborhood pollution sources to arranging citizen air monitoring programs. The Council is also working in a number of low-income neighborhoods to ensure that chronic environmental health threats are addressed.


The low-income community of South Wilmington, a heavily industrialized part of Wilmington, Delaware, has long suffered from the effects of poor air quality. Residents are burdened by a number of air pollution sources, including industrial, manufacturing, transportation, and construction sources, all of which have led to numerous environmental and public health hazards. The convergence of harmful air pollution, heavily concentrated contamination sites, a high proportion of African-Americans, and a high poverty rate indicates South Wilmington is a perfect example of a community in need of environmental justice.

Peninsula Compost

In the summer of 2013 the Council was working to reduce fugitive dust in Wilmington. While it was an important issue, Council organizers found that the community was far more concerned about the odors coming from the nearby Peninsula Compost facility. While the Council generally supports composting, Peninsula was an exception. The facility took industrial compost which included “dead chicks from hatcheries, manure-filled animal bedding, and decaying meat and bones ” among other unique waste. The stench from the facility permeated the entire neighborhood, and residents were fed up.

The Council joined with other local groups organizing against the facility and forced the state of Delaware to hold a public hearing on it. Nearly 200 residents showed up, including the mayor of Wilmington. Almost everyone who testified did so against the facility, including the mayor. In the end, the people won and a closure notice was issued for the facility to shut down by January 16th, 2015. When Peninsula tried to drag its feet and delay the process the state came down hard, threatening $10,000/day fines. Not long after that, Peninsula began to shut down in earnest, removing most of the material on site. The smell has now been resolved, and residents’ quality of life has greatly improved.

This campaign was unique for the Council. While the odors from this facility were a public nuisance, they were not intrinsically harmful. But environmental justice focuses on community wellbeing as a whole, and these odors were a nuisance that reduced community wellbeing.

Green Stormwater Infrastructure

The Council’s other major project in Wilmington has been pushing for the development of Green Stormwater Infrastructure (GSI). South Wilmington is prone to flooding, and it’s only going to get worse with climate change. GSI is a way to handle flooding that uses vegetation, soils, and other eco-friendly methods to absorb water. The Council has been successful in coupling this model of stormwater management with an emphasis on community control of development in south Wilmington.

Community involvement is key to the long-term success of this project. Specifically, a continued focus on community education and meaningful community engagement throughout the GSI design process is critical. Our model helped shift control of the development process, resources, and decision-making authority to the residents as meaningful and legitimate stakeholders.


While much of Philadelphia qualifies as environmental justice communities, the Council has been particularly active on environmental justice issues in the Philadelphia River Wards for the last five years. Home to industrial facilities, an international port, rail lines, and an interstate highway, these neighborhoods are disproportionately burdened by higher concentration of pollution. The Council is also active in Eastwick near the Philadelphia refinery where flooding and transportation issues are a serious concern to the community. Our work includes the implementation of health surveys, listening sessions, and citizen air monitoring projects.

River Wards

In Port Richmond the Council worked with Drexel University and the University of Pennsylvania on a community-based participatory air monitoring campaign, led by community members trained to collect air quality data. Under this project residents took ownership of the research as well as the data that was collected (PM 2.5 and black carbon concentrations). This was very important to the residents due to the large amounts of particulate matter pollution from trucks and nearby transportation hubs.

Through this research the Council was able to show the strengths of community participation in data gathering. Our monitors showed that there was a difference in concentrations of pollution at community level compared to Philadelphia’s regulatory air quality monitors. This difference in measurements showed the benefits of community-level monitoring. Through this collaborative effort between the Council, residents, and academic partners, 2 different scientific papers were also published.

Following the participatory community air monitoring, the residents decided to use the data and knowledge collected to push for policy change and recommendations. The residents joined in the discussion process with the Philadelphia Planning Commission for the city’s comprehensive development guide, Philadelphia2035. Through this process the residents provided their insights and recommendations to improve community environmental health and welfare. These recommendations were successfully integrated into the River Wards District Plan Recommendations made by the Philadelphia Planning Commission.

Currently the Council has been working with Drexel University on another research project that examines how Kenisngton, Bridesburg, and Port Richmond (the River Wards communities) each perceive their environment and environmental hazards.


Eastwick is located in southwest Philadelphia and is near a number of major pollution sources, including Philadelphia Energy Solutions’ petroleum refinery, I-95, a postal distribution center, and Philadelphia International Airport. The Council has held workshops on issues like indoor air pollution and the local impacts of global warming on the community. The Council has also worked to limit the refinery’s emissions with our organizers commenting on proposed permits and, when necessary, our attorneys have taken them to court.

For more information on our public health work contact John Lee. His phone number is 215-567-4004 ext. 105, and his email is jlee@cleanair.org.

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