Back When We Burned Trash On The Delaware River


The East Central Incinerator once burned the city’s rubbish where Festival Pier at Penn’s Landing is today. | Image courtesy of DRWC

Philadelphia’s chronic litter problem is making headlines again, and the push for restoring regular citywide street cleaning is reaching a fever pitch. Philly has a long reputation for being filthy dating back to the years after William Penn founded our lovable little garbage heap. But let’s put things into modern perspective to a time when the East Central Incinerator once stood at the foot of Spring Garden Street along Delaware Avenue.

In 1960 the city paid $160,000 for two piers on the Delaware River. Piers 33 and 34 had been owned by the Philadelphia Rapid Transit Company, a predecessor to SEPTA, since at the early 1900s. Maps of the 1800s show that a prior lumber storage pier there was owned by D. Trump & Sons. Amusingly, the property is only a stone’s throw away from where Trump Tower Philadelphia, proposed right before the Great Recession, was planned to be built. The City subsequently acquired three smaller piers along the waterfront–Piers 31, 32 and 35. Pier 31 had been owned by the Reading Railroad to handle freight cars, as were many piers along that stretch of the Delaware River. Piers 32 and 35 were already under City control. The entire vicinity of these piers had once been within the river, as riverside development had pushed the Quaker City’s waterfront further and further east since the city was founded.

The City proceeded to fill the space between the individual piers to make one large pier over the Delaware River, over which the East Central trash-burning plant was built. Joining five other Philadelphia incinerators then in operation, it was one of three planned in the 1960s to burn commercial and consumer waste into ash and to contend with Philadelphia’s then-mounting piles of trash. The plant served the area between South Street and Allegheny Avenue, river to river. The City proudly announced when East Central went into operation in 1966 that collected trash from downtown no longer had to be hauled long distances to outlining incinerators.

Since it was enclosed on two sides by Delaware Avenue, the fully-automated plant was accessed by a 200-foot curved concrete ramp over which some 200 trash trucks plod every day. The side facing the street had a space for public access, where citizens could walk up and throw their trash into an enormous, menacing pit. With its glazed brick and blue glass, the five-story steel and reinforced concrete structure built by Day & Zimmermann was applauded by the Philadelphia Art Commission for its supposed beauty. The Streets Commissioner at the time called it “the most modern rubbish-burning plant in the United States, if not the world.” 

The East Central Incinerator at the foot of Spring Garden Street in its stem-and-flyash-spewing heyday. | Image:

No outside fuel was used for combustion except to power electric fans that blew air on the fires for maximum efficiency. East Central generated ash as its chief end product. Its 60-foot tall stainless steel smokestacks emitted a seemingly endless supply of steam and flyash particles as it processed 600 tons of garbage each day. Six pounds of flyash—a prime contributor to air pollution—was generated for every 1,000 pounds of exhaust fumes from the flues of each of its two 300-ton per day furnaces. This was so despite the plant employing high-combustion and “scrubbing action” techniques that minimized air pollution. A million gallons of Delaware River water were used every day to “scub” the furnace gasses to rid them of flyash.

The solid waste of the entire process was even more problematic, as tons of ash were created every day. This ash has been called the “Achilles’ Heel of mass burn technology” because of the staggering environmental cost of disposal. This is especially true if such waste is classified as hazardous material, as it usually is.

In recent times, the best way to rid oneself of such troublesome ash is to dump it into the sea or to find some locality that will accept it for landfill purposes. In this way, the disposal of solid ash is similar to the creative manner that coal ash was usually dispensed with in the early 20th century. Back then, valleys that creeks carved out on their way to the Delaware or Schuylkill Rivers were often filled with coal ash from commercial and residential furnaces and stoves. The filled valleys would then be added to Philadelphia’s street grid, with homes later built on the surface. This manner of ash disposal, however, backfired, since coal ash is an unstable material atop which to build. When houses were built on top of newly graded landfills, they inevitably became unsteady, developing cracks in their foundations as they sank into the ground and making the houses unsafe to occupy. This is what famously happened in the Mill Creek and Logan neighborhoods of the city.

Have Trash, Will Travel

All of the city’s incinerators met the standards of the day for flyash and other emitted pollutants when they were built, but increased vigilance against all sorts of pollution started in the 1970s. In 1971, the District Attorney filed a lawsuit against the City’s incinerators for polluting the air. In response, the City upgraded the East Central Incinerator and shut down four of the other plants, converting them to transfer stations i.e. places where trash could be moved from municipal trash trucks to long-haul trucks heading to landfills miles and miles away. New Jersey was the chief recipient of Philly’s trash until 1984, when that state refused to accept any more out-of-state refuse. Other regional landfills soon started announcing the same.

Solid ash at the Northwest Incinerator at Umbria Street and Domino Lane in Roxborough must have started piling up about that time. A Mount Everest of ash had risen behind the facility by August 1986 when the cargo ship Khian Sea was loaded with more than 14,000 tons of ash from that incinerator and possibly some from East Central. The ship’s operators intended to dump the ash in the Bahamas, but the Bahamian government turned the ship away.

The Khian Sea, aka Felicia, aka Pelicano. From

The Khian Sea aka Felicia aka Pelicano. | Image:

Over the next 16 months, the Khian Sea searched all over the Atlantic for a place to dump its cargo. The Dominican Republic, Honduras, Panama, Bermuda, Guinea Bissau, and the Dutch Antilles all refused the ash. In January 1988, the crew dumped 4,000 tons of waste in Haiti as “topsoil fertilizer,” which was a ruse. When Greenpeace informed the Haitian government, the Commerce Minister ordered the crew of the Khian Sea to reload the ash, but the ship had already slipped away.

The crew then tried to unload the remaining waste in Senegal, Morocco, Yugoslavia, Singapore, and Sri Lanka. All countries refused. Along the way, the Liberian-registered Khian Sea became the Honduran-registered Felicia, and then its name changed again to Pelicano. The remaining ash disappeared en route to Sri Lanka in late 1988. Eventually, the ship’s captain admitted that the crew had dumped the remaining 10,000 tons of waste into the Atlantic and Indian Oceans. In 1993, two ship owners were convicted of perjury for denying they had ordered the crew to dump the ash into the ocean.

In 1997, New York City Trade Waste Commission investigated Eastern Environmental Services (EES). The company’s owner was part of the company handling the Khian Sea waste. The Commission agreed to give the firm a license to operate in New York City because it would contribute to the cleanup in Haiti. EES agreed to take the waste back and the city of Philadelphia contributed $50,000 to the effort. In April 2000, Waste Management Inc. loaded 2,500 tons of ash and contaminated soil to a barge and shipped it to Florida, where the barge was docked in the St. Lucie Canal. There it stayed until 2002, when it was moved to Mountain View Reclamation Landfill in Franklin County, Pennsylvania, not that far from where it had been generated 16 years earlier. By then, the EPA had firmly declared the ash non-hazardous.

The saga of the Khian Sea was an impetus for the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and Their Disposal. This UN treaty was signed in 1989 and entered into force in 1992. Strangely, only the United States and Haiti have not yet ratified it.

A Philthy Predicament

Meanwhile, back in Philly, the City had been loping into “trash-to-steam” since the 1970s as a way to reduce the volume of landfill shipments and reduce the cost of disposal overall, not to mention improving air quality by reducing or eliminating trash incineration. A proposed trash-to-steam plant was bandied about in the 1970s and 1980s, with both the Naval Yard and the Willow Street Steam Generating Plant being possible locations for a new $350 million facility. Other sites were also proposed in surrounding counties. The proposal ran into vehement community opposition and City Council killed the plan once and for all in 1988.

Some 50 jobs were lost when both the East Central and the Northwest incinerators shut down in 1988. By then, it had been determined that using landfills was the best way to deal with the city’s trash. In reality, East Central closed because the EPA had declared that year that it significantly contributed to air pollution in Philadelphia. Plus, one of the plant’s burner units had broken down in the weeks before. When it closed, the facility had operated for only twenty years, ultimately a very low return on investment.

Festival Pier--the modern incarnation of the piers that had once hosted the East Central Incinerator. From

Festival Pier–the modern incarnation of the piers that had once played host to the trash-hungry East Central Incinerator. | Image:

East Central’s construction along the waterfront signified how disconnected the city had become from the Delaware River by the mid-20th century. The situation did not end after the plant closed, as it remained a vacant rusting eyesore for years. The foreboding pile was finally dismantled in 2002 after an environmental cleanup overseen by the Army Corps of Engineers, just about when the city began seriously regarding the entire waterfront district—not just Penn’s Landing—as an entertainment and recreational destination. Today, much of the site is Festival Pier, a seven-acre recreational venue where music concerts and other entertainment events are held. However, the old Penn’s Landing Corporation had originally proposed a casino for the site in 2005. 15 years before a Center City Heliport was envisioned for the parcel. According to master plans for the Central Waterfront, residential development is not too far behind.

As landfills have filled up in the past decades, recycling has come into the picture in a big way in Philadelphia. The City was the first municipality in Pennsylvania to implement curbside collection of residential recyclables in 1989. The City no longer uses landfills because recycling and modern waste-to-energy incineration is cheaper. The largest regional WTE facility is in Chester, known as Covanta Delaware Valley or The Delaware Valley Resource Recovery facility. It burns up to 3,300 tons of waste per day, producing high BTU burning pellets for use in coal-firing factories and similar facilities. A smaller WTE plant, Covanta Plymouth Renewable Energy, is located in Conshohocken and handles up to 1,200 tons of trash per day. Another one in Morristown is the Wheelabrator Falls Inc. facility, which can handle 1,500 tons a day.

Nevertheless, the ever-present problem of trash creation and disposal marches on in Philadelphia. At least 60 tons of rubbish was left behind on a single day after the Eagles Super Bowl parade in February, the largest amount ever for a single event in Philly. Mayor Kenney has established a goal of become a Zero Waste city by 2035, an initiative that would eliminate the use of landfills and conventional incinerators. If only our litter epidemic could be addressed with the same zeal the City has used in the past to confront Philly’s trash disposal problem.

About the author

Harry Kyriakodis, author of Philadelphia's Lost Waterfront (2011), Northern Liberties: The Story of a Philadelphia River Ward (2012), and The Benjamin Franklin Parkway (2014), regularly gives walking tours and presentations on unique yet unappreciated parts of the city. A founding/certified member of the Association of Philadelphia Tour Guides, he is a graduate of La Salle University and Temple University School of Law, and was once an officer in the U.S. Army Field Artillery. He has collected what is likely the largest private collection of books about the City of Brotherly Love: over 2700 titles new and old.

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  1. An excellent, if damning piece, Mr Kyriakodis.

  2. I was wondering if I was reading a previous article right. But I guess I was, no street cleaning……unbelievable. I realize that most politicians haven’t the slightest idea how to manage a budget but to do away with street cleaning in a city the size of Philly is unbelievable. When I went in the service and told people where I was from a few of them would say “oh Filthydelphia” dirtiest city I ever saw. Thanks for the great article as always Harry.

  3. The back side had the ramp for the trash trucks (as referenced) but the front side had a space for public access. I remember going there with my dad to drop off large items. You would walk right up to the edge of an enormous pit and throw in your trash. It scared the heck out of me as a youngster: it was dark and loud and stinky and very menacing.

    • Thanks for the input. In fact, I’ve added this sentence to the story: “The side facing the street had a space for public access, where citizens could walk up and throw their trash into an enormous, menacing pit.”

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