Not Here: How an environmental justice controversy sparked in Upper Darby

The site of a proposed solid waste management facility across from homes on Union Avenue

The site of a proposed solid waste management facility across from homes on Union Avenue in Lansdowne, Pa. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Although Betty Byrd Smith has been retired from disability advocacy since 2007, she will not let perceived injustices happen on her watch — even after a recent hip replacement.

Smith, who has lived in Lansdowne for more than 30 years, had created flyers and had led door-to-door petitioning, though not for quite some time.

However, a recent moment of “serendipity” during a walk to buy a newspaper at a local market changed all that: Smith saw a sign about at a special exception being sought for a solid waste management facility at 41 S. Union Ave. in Upper Darby Township — right across the street from her home.

The area, most of whose residents are Black, is where several Delaware County towns converge, among them Lansdowne, Upper Darby, East Lansdowne, and Yeadon. (The property in question has a Lansdowne zip code but sits within Upper Darby’s borders.)

A notice of a public hearing posted at the site of a proposed solid waste management facility in Lansdowne, Pa. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

And with environmental justice on her mind, Smith wasn’t a fan of the new proposal.

“If you see evil, you need to address it. The worst thing is silence that allows something like this to happen,” she said. “Silence. It’s worse than the perpetrator. He’s telling you what he’s gonna do.”

The property, which sits in a commercial-industrial zoning district, is owned by Bill Santora of A&E Construction Co. and already has several tenants, including a chemical company and a towing company. The application filed by Santora would be for his own business venture on the property.

Smith decided to stand in opposition to the proposal because, she said, she wants to leave the neighborhood better than she found it. Smith began to type up “urgent” letters, but past experience has proved that alone will not work, so she sought help.

“I’m not on Facebook. I don’t like it. But I understand that everything has its good and its bad. And I say Facebook is like fire: It can be used for arson, or it can be used [for good]. I asked my daughter to assist. She set up the petition,” Smith said.

The Change.org petition, that is.

DeLaine McCleary is Smith’s daughter, and although she now lives in Maryland, she still has ties to the area where she grew up. McCleary remembers playing outside as people in hazmat suits walked around. The community was not offered that same protection.

“The history behind the community is that it has been a dumping ground,” McCleary said. So she jumped into action.

For Smith, digital activism offered a much better reach. “How can you get 1,000 names in two days? Only through digital. I didn’t have to go door to door,” she said.

Smith just wanted backup, but she got the cavalry. That was apparent Thursday night, at a virtual meeting of the Upper Darby Zoning Hearing Board. The Zoom meeting reached its 100-person capacity as community members and elected leaders from the nearby towns came to voice their opposition to Santora’s application in what turned into a 2 ½-hour discussion.

The Boroughs of Yeadon, Lansdowne and East Lansdowne — as well as two nearby churches, a local business and the Nile Swim Club, the nation’s first Black-owned swim club — sought official party status in the matter, citing the potential for negative environmental impact. Zoning board solicitor Peter Amuso granted them the status, which will allow them to cross-examine witnesses and appeal a future decision.

Also granted party status was Pembroke Properties LLC, which owns real estate and an auto mechanic shop nearby. Pembroke’s attorney, Peter Mylonas, cited a “direct and immediate discernable adverse effect” on the environment around his client.

Santora, the owner of the property in need of the special exception, was represented by his attorney, Michael Robinson.

The tension during the Zoom meeting was palpable.

“We have many residents who live on Union Avenue who have been through a lot over the years,” Lansdowne Mayor Tony Campuzano said. “I don’t know if you remember they had a radioactive problem down there with the EPA.”

Santora tried to object to the Nile Swim Club being granted party status, arguing it was too far away from the property. (It is 0.2 of a mile away, a representative said.)

“Counsel, if you could direct your client not to try and make his case here. He has counsel,” said Charles Gibbs, the Yeadon solicitor.

Santora was prompted to text his attorney.

“I understand the emotions here, but I think there is a misunderstanding of what the development will entail … this property was a perpetually blighted property before my client acquired it,” Robinson said. Santora has improved the area since he has purchased the site, he added.

The site of a proposed solid waster management facility in Lansdowne, Pa. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

“What my client is intending to do is house a couple of dumpsters on the property,” Robinson said, and the category of  “solid waste management facility” was the closest fit that could be found. “It’s a use that is allowed under the zoning code. It only requires a special exception.”

Santora said, “I bought the property to improve the property — not to ruin the neighborhood. I want to put two dumpsters in the yard where trucks can come. The trash, when I say trash — the debris, will never hit the ground. It will go from the trucks into the dumpsters.”

During cross-examination by Gibbs and Carl Ewald, the attorney representing Lansdowne and East Lansdowne, the nature of the business proposal seemed to change from a site where construction debris would be stored then transferred for disposal, to a business that would lease dumpsters.

Plans for the proposed solid waste management facility. (Courtesy of Upper Darby Township)

“I’m only accepting one dumpster at a time of construction debris,” Santora said, though he acknowledged that trash other than construction debris and possible hazardous materials have the potential to end up in the dumpsters.

“Anybody can have the potential,” Santora said.

Throughout Santora’s testimony, an individual off-screen seemed to be communicating with him. The lawyers took notice and discovered that it was his brother and business partner, Tony Santora.

“He’s not telling me anything about this. He’s trying to make me laugh,” Santora said.

Gibbs did not find this answer acceptable.

“This is not a funny matter to the Borough of Yeadon, so we’re not laughing today. This is serious,” Gibbs said.

Santora’s brother left the room.

What is a good neighbor?

After he was cross-examined by the attorneys, the community members granted party status questioned Santora — and challenged his repeated assertion that he was a good neighbor.

T.L. and Crystal Lucky are professors at Villanova University and pastors at Sword of the Spirit Church, which has been located on Union Avenue since 2003. The church is next door to Santora’s property.

Though they commended Santora for the improvements he has made to the property, they warned him about the optics of his proposal.

“Typically, communities of color bear the brunt of these types of facilities,” T.L. Lucky said.

Crystal Lucky confronted Santora about his intentions.

“I know you don’t know who we are because, as you were talking earlier, you don’t even know our names,” she said.

Though Santora was apologetic, their next exchange, when she asked if he would want a facility like this in his neighborhood, made him defensive.

“I didn’t buy a house in an industrial center. No, I would not want it. And I wouldn’t buy a house in an industrial center,” Santora said.

Paul James, a senior pastor at the CareView Community Church across the street from both the property and the Luckys’ church, echoed the sentiment of the other pastors.

James said something like this would not happen in Upper Darby’s whiter neighborhoods, like Drexel Hill.

“There are just some places that white folks know that they can’t do certain things,” James said.

As the meeting reached its conclusion, state Rep. Margo Davidson, who represents the area, spoke out against the application, saying that Santora has been using Upper Darby as a dump site. She urged the zoning board to deny the application.

After the hearing, WHYY News reached out to several of the parties involved. Robinson, Santora’s attorney, declined to comment.

Gibbs, who is representing Yeadon, talked about his client’s environmental justice concerns.

“Yeadon is a predominantly African American community. Historically, what has happened is that these types of industrial polluters are situated incredibly close to predominantly African American communities,” he said. “And I think that science will bear out that there’s some correlation between the proximity of industrial sites and some of the comorbidities that exist in the African American community.”

The legacy of environmental racism

Environmental racism is not rare across the United States, research shows. A 2018 study shows that toxic waste sites, for example, are not evenly distributed throughout communities and that Black communities are usually the ones faced with hosting them.

Lansdowne was designated a Superfund site by the EPA from 1985 to 1991 because of toxic waste that resulted from a scientist’s at-home work with radium between 1924 and 1944.

Gibbs said he was proud to see people stand up for a cause at Thursday’s zoning hearing.

“I was the proudest I’ve been as a lawyer in my entire career — to speak for people who are fighting for their communities, fighting for generations that are yet unborn,” Gibbs said.

The racial elephant in the room is what stuck out to the pastors representing their churches — especially after the confrontation over whether Santora would feel the same way about a facility in his community.

“The history of racism, environmental racism, the history of redlining, and … racist real estate practices have forced many people into communities where lots of people would not have wanted to live,” Crystal Lucky said. “It’s a chicken or the egg situation. So, what’s there first: the chemical plant or the houses?”

In a 2015 study titled Which came first, people or pollution?, researchers found that communities of color and low-income communities settled first — and that industrial facilities soon followed.

She said that she felt disrespected by Santora’s testimony.

“He never put a note in the mailbox, he never reached out. And then he tries to say something about us last night about being a good neighbor,” she said.

T.L Lucky said he is concerned about the racial makeup of the decision-makers.

“The voting members of that board had nobody that looked like me, nobody that looked like any of these people that were in opposition to this particular application — but they all look like the applicant. That to me is problematic,” he said.

James, the pastor, said he believes people in positions of power feel like they have agency in communities of color, especially when they think no one is watching.

“There’s constant mention of Flint, Michigan, that municipalities are capable of horrific things, when the electorate and the community is not astute to what is going on,” James said.

Lansdowne resident, Eric Aubrey, who attended the zoning board meeting, said people in his town are used to challenging these things.

“This is not our first run with environmentally damaging issues,” Aubrey said. “The issues … are very near and dear to all the hearts and minds of people who have been here.”

Many of the people who attended Thursday night’s meeting credited Smith and the Change.org petition for calling attention to the zoning application.

Smith hopes the hearing’s second round, set for Feb. 9 at 7 p.m. will put the issue to rest.

“We have them on the ropes. The next round is going to be a TKO. Be there,” Smith said.

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POST SCRIPT

Environmental justice clash in Upper Darby brings withdrawal of waste-facility application

Spelman’s Rosalind Brewer, HBCU Grad, Becomes the Only Black Female CEO of a Fortune 500 Company

Walgreens Boots Alliance today announced the appointment of Rosalind (Roz) Brewer as the company’s Chief Executive Officer, effective on March 15, 2021. Brewer will also join the WBA Board of Directors upon assuming the role. She succeeds Stefano Pessina who will transition to the role of Executive Chairman of the Board of WBA.

Pessina has served as the CEO of the combined company for six years following the merger between Walgreens and Alliance Boots in December 2014. During his tenure, he transformed and modernized the company into a global pharmacy, health and wellness leader, significantly expanding WBA’s retail footprint and investing in digitalization. Pessina will replace James (Jim) Skinner as Executive Chairman of WBA in March 2021. Skinner will remain on the WBA Board as a non-executive director to facilitate a smooth leadership transition.

Walgreens Appoints Rosalind Brewer CEO

Brewer brings to WBA a proven track record of leadership and operational expertise at multi-national corporations, with deep experience in strategic development, marketing, digital transformation and loyalty, innovation and technology, supply chain and store development. She most recently served as Chief Operating Officer, Group President and member of the Board of Directors of Starbucks Corporation, where she has been instrumental in helping the company accelerate its growth strategy, expand its global reach and drive value for all of Starbucks’ diverse stakeholders.

Prior to joining Starbucks, Brewer served as President and CEO of Sam’s Club, the members-only warehouse channel of Walmart Inc. While there, she successfully grew membership, transformed merchandise and amplified the use of digital technology to enable a seamless shopping experience at scale, which led to sequentially improved comp sales.

“The Board conducted an extensive search to identify an exceptional leader who will build on WBA’s track-record of success and take advantage of the many growth opportunities in many markets across the company. We are excited to have found that person in Roz,” said Pessina. “She is a distinguished and experienced executive who has led organizations globally through periods of changing consumer behavior by applying innovation that elevates customer experiences – ultimately driving significant and sustainable growth and value creation. Her relentless focus on the customer, talent development, operational rigor and strong expertise in digital and technological transformation are exactly what WBA needs as the company enters its next chapter. I look forward to working with Roz, and to continuing to partner with Jim and the entire Board and management team to take our company forward.”

“WBA is a world-class and trusted organization whose purpose I deeply admire,” said Brewer. “The healthcare industry is constantly evolving, and I am excited to work alongside the entire WBA team as we deliver further innovation and positively impact the lives of millions of people around the world every day. This is especially true today as the company plays a crucial role in combatting the COVID-19 pandemic. I step into this role with great optimism for the future of WBA, a shared responsibility to serve our customers, patients and communities, and a commitment to drive long-term sustainable value for shareholders.”

“Our global position as an accessible healthcare provider in the communities we serve has never been so critical, and I am very confident in the company’s prospects for growth under Roz’s leadership,” said Skinner. “It has been an enormous privilege for me to chair the Board through such an extraordinary time for our company, and to work alongside Stefano, with his keen eye for anticipating shifts in the rapidly evolving healthcare market and staying one step ahead of consumers’ needs. He was a driving force behind the merger of Walgreens and Alliance Boots, creating the first global pharmacy-led, health and wellbeing enterprise and has positioned WBA extremely well for continued growth and expansion. He is transitioning leadership into very capable hands. I am excited to have the opportunity to continue to serve as a Board member going forward to what I believe will be a period of continued growth and prosperity for our company.”

Before her time at Starbucks, Brewer worked at Sam’s Club from 2012 to 2017. She made history by becoming the first woman and first African American to lead a Walmart division. She is currently ranked #27 on Fortune’s 50 Most Powerful Women in Business.

She joined Walmart in 2006 as regional vice president and later became president of Walmart East, where her P&L responsibility exceeded $100 billion. Prior to Walmart, she was with Kimberly-Clark Corp. for 22 years, starting as a scientist and ultimately serving as president of the Global Nonwovens Sector in 2004.

Roz earned a bachelor’s degree in chemistry from Spelman College and attended Wharton’s Advanced Management Program and Stanford University’s Directors’ College.

She is a former director of Amazon, Lockheed Martin and Molson Coors Brewing Company. She also chairs the board of trustees at Spelman College.

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For Black Americans, a Heritage Trip to West Africa Can Be Life-changing

A group of people participate in a naming ceremony in Ghana

African Americans have lately gravitated toward ancestral homelands like Benin, Ghana, and Togo. Special planning helps these heritage travelers have a positive experience.

West African must-sees like Ghana's Elmina Castle and Senegal's Maison des Esclaves, relics of the transatlantic slave trade, are some of the most important historical sites on the continent. They have an even deeper meaning for travelers like Rondel Holder. A Black New Yorker with family from Grenada and Jamaica, he's one of a growing number of people of the African diaspora returning to West Africa to explore his roots.

"I still get chills thinking about the dungeons and cellars of Elmina Castle," Holder says, recalling his visit in 2019. "For a lot of Black people, there's a longing to connect and a longing to learn about where we're from."

A number of developments are driving a surge of interest in heritage trips to West Africa. Advancements in DNA testing — led by Africa-focused companies such as AfroRoots DNA and African Ancestry — are making it easier for Black Americans to research their genetic backgrounds. Airlines, including Delta, have expanded service to West Africa. Tourism campaigns such as Ghana's 2019 Year of Return, timed to coincide with the 400 years since the first enslaved Africans arrived in Jamestown, Virginia, also attracted the diaspora. And a growing number of tour operators are stepping in to handle the logistics of these trips.

"We've never really had the chance to grow from the past," says Atlanta-based Eric Martin, cofounder of Black & Abroad, which operates group tours to Ghana and Senegal. "By making a pilgrimage to these West African countries, seeing the sights, hearing the personal accounts of our African ancestors directly from their surviving descendants, we have a cathartic connection."

Black travelers say the experience can be life-changing.

"I feel more in touch with myself and my culture than ever before," says Brian Oliver, a Baltimore-based nonprofit director who visited the five African countries that matched his DNA: Benin, Côte d'Ivoire, Ghana, Nigeria, and Togo. Nicole Brewer, a teacher and blogger living in Oman whose DNA results showed a link to Ghana, added the country to her short list of places for retirement, after visiting during the Year of Return. Others, like Kristin Tellis Quaye of St. Petersburg, Florida, have turned heritage travel into a new career. A practicing lawyer, she also now runs Certified Africa, a firm that organizes trips to West Africa.

While these soul-stirring journeys are a powerful means for Black Americans to trace their lineage, they also require careful planning.

"The reality is, Africa has its own complexities and perspectives that don't always match the idealized view of the continent those in the diaspora have," says Kwesi Ewoodzie, a Ghanaian-American sociologist and founding director of Culture Beyond Borders, an Atlanta tour operator. The right guide can help navigate language barriers and facilitate meaningful cultural interactions. Facebook groups such as Black Travel Movement and Travel Africa Movement are excellent resources, filled with advice from locals. And media outlets like Essence and Travel Noire offer sound advice, often with Black Americans specifically in mind.

Another challenge: DNA testing can trace only Black Americans' racial backgrounds and geographic origins, not the names or lineages of their families. Despite all of this, Holder says, his visit to Ghana was "deeply spiritual."

"You're standing where tens of thousands of Black people were enslaved, learning about everything they went through before they were shoved onto boats to cross the Atlantic," he recalls. "So, to be back in Africa willingly and happily, in the place where all of that happened, it's like my ancestors' wildest dreams."

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Pioneering Actress Cicely Tyson Dead At 96

Cicely Tyson

The actress is best known for her Oscar-nominated role in the 1972 film, “Sounder.”

Cicely Tyson, the pioneering Black actress who gained an Oscar nomination for her role as the sharecropper’s wife in “Sounder,” a Tony Award in 2013 at age 88 and touched TV viewers’ hearts in “The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman,” died Thursday at age 96.

Tyson’s death was announced by her family, via her manager Larry Thompson, who did not immediately provide additional details.

Image may contain: 1 person

“With heavy heart, the family of Miss Cicely Tyson announces her peaceful transition this afternoon. At this time, please allow the family their privacy,” according to a statement issued through Thompson.

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Live By The Sharpie, Die By The Ballpoint ― Much Of Trump’s Legacy Undone In Days

An executive order requiring masks on public transportation such as airlines, trains and buses was one of several signed by President Biden on his first full day in office.

From border wall funds to the Muslim ban, the accomplishments Trump bragged about were done by executive action and have just as readily been undone.

From the border wall with Mexico to the ban on transgender people in the military to travel prohibitions on majority-Muslim countries to the withdrawal from the Paris climate accord, many of former President Donald Trump’s proudest accomplishments have been undone in just the first days of successor Joe Biden’s administration.

Trump’s failure to codify his preferred policies through legislation, relying instead on a black Sharpie marker to scrawl his signature onto executive actions and then show them off for the cameras, left them vulnerable to Biden’s signature on countermanding orders. And so far, the new president has signed dozens of them ― albeit with a ballpoint pen and less flourish, but every bit as effective ― wiping out much of Trump’s “legacy” in a matter of days.

“Elections have consequences,” said a former Trump adviser on condition of anonymity.

Biden took office at noon last Wednesday and did not arrive at the White House until nearly 4 p.m. Yet within two hours, he had signed 17 executive actions, including orders reentering the United States into the Paris agreement to combat climate change, ending the “national emergency” that Trump had declared to let him raid money for his border wall from the military construction budget, suspending Trump’s ban on travel from a group of majority-Muslim nations, revoking Trump’s order blocking the counting of undocumented immigrants in the 2020 census, and reinstating the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program that halts deportation of many immigrants who came into the country illegally as young children.

In the following days, Biden restored collective bargaining power for federal employees and ordered the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to find ways to keep workers across a range of industries safe from COVID-19.

And on Monday, the new president rescinded the ban that Trump had imposed on transgender people serving in the military.

“It’s simple: America is safer when everyone qualified to serve can do so openly and with pride,” Biden said in an Oval Office ceremony.

The rapid-fire reversals highlight Trump’s reliance on implementing change on his own rather than building support for his ideas in Congress in order to pass laws.

On his promise to build a wall along the southern border, for example, Trump neglected it entirely during the two years Republicans controlled both the House and Senate, then triggered a monthlong government shutdown to try to coerce Congress into giving him funds to construct it, and finally declared a national emergency that provided a justification for him to raid military construction budgets ― taking money that otherwise would have gone for such things as schools and on-base housing for service members and their families. Doing so allowed him to build 453 miles of new steel fencing along the 2,000-mile Mexican border, although only about 80 miles are in stretches where no previous barrier existed. (Trump had promised hundreds of times during his 2016 campaign that he would force Mexico to pay for the wall, but in four years he never made that request even once, and Mexico never paid a dime.)

One former White House official, who also spoke on condition of anonymity, said that in Trump’s first year, after failing to repeal the Affordable Care Act, the White House focused on passing the tax cut bill. “They got it through while he had both houses of Congress,” the former official said.

Cutting taxes, though, is a perennial priority for Republicans and almost certainly would have passed a GOP-controlled Congress with or without Trump’s backing. Legislation pushing Trump’s own agenda, on the other hand, was almost nonexistent.

Indeed, the one notable exception was in 2018, when Trump’s proposal to severely restrict immigration ― long a priority of top policy aide Stephen Miller ― was given a vote on the Senate floor and received just 41 yeas, the fewest of any of the plans under consideration that day.

The former White House aide said that vote pretty much ended Trump’s interest in immigration legislation. “That ship sailed after that first effort,” he said.

Biden, for his part, acknowledged that executive orders and memorandums can only get him so far.

“I’m proud of today’s executive actions, and I’m going to start by keeping the promises I made to the American people,” he said in the Oval Office on Inauguration Day, a tall brown stack of binders on his desk awaiting his signature. “These are just executive actions. They are important, but we’re going to need legislation for a lot of the things we’re going to do.”

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