ALLENTOWN, Pa. - It began with young demonstrators shouting at passing cars in front of Dieruff High School in east Allentown, while holding signs bearing phrases such as "stop the burn," "people over profit" and "no to incinerator."
It ended in near chaos, with a local college professor attempting to speak after the moderator declared the meeting was over.
In between was a steady barrage against the proposed Delta Thermo Energy waste-to-energy plant, a barrage that continued for most of the nearly three-and-a-half hours in the high school auditorium Wednesday night.
The public meeting was called by the state Department of Environmental Protection as part of its procedure for approving an air quality permit so the plant can be built along Klines Island next to the Lehigh River in Allentown.
The big question not asked by anyone at the meeting was when the controversial plant will be built.
Late last year, Delta Thermo president and CEO Rob Van Naarden predicted construction would begin in March or April. That didn't happen.
At the end of Wednesday's meeting, Van Naarden declined to make any prediction, except to say the 18 months of construction will begin the day after his company gets its permits from DEP.
Asked when those permits might be approved, DEP spokeswoman Colleen Connolly said: "It will be a few months; that's all I'll say."
Representatives of Delta Thermo and DEP were seated at separate tables in the front of the auditorium – not on the stage.
The auditorium, which Connolly was told seats 400, was little more than half full.
Based on applause, not everyone in the audience opposed the project.
But only one person expressed support for it, out of more than 30 who spoke.
Kevin Lott, who introduced himself as an environmentalist, said: "I commend Delta Thermo for trying to find a way to solve a serious environmental problem like landfills. This is a good project. It's better than what we're currently doing with our trash."
Lott said he represents many tradesmen in the Lehigh Valley and Delta Thermo's owners have made a commitment to use local labor to build the plant. "These will be good, family-sustaining construction jobs," said Lott, who was applauded.
Several people in the audience – one of them speaking in Spanish – complained that most Allentown residents who live near the plant site are Hispanic and that both DEP and Delta Thermo have failed to adequately explain what's going on to them.
Connolly said DEP fliers about the meeting were distributed to the Hispanic community via community centers, the library and City Hall.
At the beginning of the meeting, Connolly advised anyone who spoke Spanish to sit near a Spanish-speaking interpreter for an immediate translation of what would transpire.
Allentown resident Julie Thomases said she runs a youth program in center-city and has talked to many parents who have no idea about the Delta Thermo project. She said they don't get newspapers and don't have computers. "Parents are very, very frightened. There is a very high level of asthma in this city. You need to know that people are not really happy about this."
The 48,000-square-foot building will be erected on a 3.1-acre lot, between Union Street and the city's waste water treatment plant.
Van Naarden said that location was chosen by the city, not by Delta Thermo, "but it's perfectly located, exactly where we want it, because it's next door to the waste water treatment plant." He said it's also next to a PPL substation.
And he said no one lives in the area immediately around the plant, which a federal environmental study determined would be the only area impacted in a worst-case emission release scenario.
A couple of people who spoke said Allentown City Council member Cynthia Mota has received campaign contributions from Delta Thermo personnel. In 2012, Mota initially voted against the project, which would have stopped it from being built. But she later reversed her vote and council approved the project 4-2.
One woman confronted Van Naarden about personally making a $1,000 donation to Mota in May. He responded that he has the right to donate to candidates he supports just as anyone else does.
Opponents of the proposed plant repeatedly called it an incinerator and both DEP and Delta Thermo officials insisted it is not. "It is a combustion chamber," said Van Naarden.
Person after person stood to warn the plant will add to air pollution in Allentown, threatening human health. Delta Thermo's president argued it will be environmentally beneficial, including a better alternative to burying municipal waste in landfills.
He said when the plant is operating, the city's trash trucks will not have to drive 50-75 miles to landfills, which will reduce air pollution.
And he said the plant actually will increase the amount of recycling done by the city, because all metals, glass and ceramics will be removed from garbage taken to the plant. He said plastics will not be recycled, but will become part of the fuel.
The proposed plant
The proposed plant will burn about 167 tons of Allentown's trash and sludge every day.
Unlike a traditional incinerator, it will not simply burn municipal solid waste, which Van Naarden said produces high levels of pollutants.
He explained the key to Delta Thermo's project is material conversion.
The company plans to turn municipal waste and sewage sludge into "a clean, pulverized fuel" – using high pressure, temperature and steam.
"It is not waste any more once we've converted it. It is a clean substance to burn." He also described it as inert and free of bacteria and hazardous materials.
The Delta Thermo plant will burn that fuel to produce steam, which will generate four mega-watts of electricity, enough to serve about
Van Naarden said traditional incinerators have stacks that are 150 to
200 feet tall, but the stack on Delta Thermo's plant will rise only
2.5 feet above the 55-foot-high roof. A DEP air quality expert said it will extend four feet above the roof and that the plume coming from that stack will consist of only steam. He said it will be more of a vent than a chimney.
Earlier this year, Van Naarden estimated the plant would cost $49 million. He had hoped it would be completed by next August. After Wednesday night's meeting, he put the cost at $40 million.
Van Naarden described the proposed plant as "a negative pressure building," meaning that even when its truck bay doors are opening, no trash or odors will get out of the building. One of his associates said no odors will come from the plant.
Allentown is first site for Delta Thermo
Van Naarden said 42 other North American cities are considering a Delta Thermo plant, but indicated Allentown is much further along in the approval process.
He said Allentown is first because Mayor Ed Pawlowski wants the city to be first -- "to be a center for new technology, a center for excellence and to set the example on how waste should be handled properly, without landfills or incinerators."
"This will be the cleanest waste facility in the United States of America," boasted Van Naarden, who was introduced as Delta Thermo's owner. "We should be proud of that."
Allentown resident David McGuire read a statement by former Allentown City Council member Michael Donovan, without mentioning that Donovan is running for mayor against Pawlowski.
Donovan wrote that too many financial and health risks remain unanswered to allow the Delta Thermo project to go "unchecked and unanalyzed." He called on DEP to "take a close look at this project and take steps to ensure it never happens in Allentown."
The Delta Thermo president said the plant's technology is new for North America, but successfully has been used for many years in Europe and Asia. "The Europeans and Asians are probably 30 to 40 years ahead of us in how to handle waste."
He said Delta Thermo has three major engineering companies and five universities -- including Lehigh University in Bethlehem -- working on the plant process and design.
The Delta Thermo president said emissions from the plant continuously will be monitored and reported to the city and DEP on a monthly basis, adding those reports then will become public.
Some people at the meeting suggested a public website should be established so everyone can view that "real-time monitoring." Van Naarden said the city rejected that idea, but added: "If the city said yes and DEP said yes, of course we'd do it."
Much of the debate about air pollutants became too technical for anyone with less than a degree in chemistry.
The Delta Thermo team seemed to duck some questions. When someone asked about the differences between Delta's Thermo's proposed plant and a traditional trash incinerator, one Delta Thermo official began comparing it to a coal-fired plant. (They said U.S. coal-fired plants emit significantly higher levels of chemicals.)
And when the Spanish-speaking man asked if Delta Thermo executives would want to live near the plant with their own families, he did not seem to get a direct answer.
While some residents said they never knew it existed, Van Naarden said Delta Thermo has a seven-member citizens advisory board for the plant that is supposed to go into the community and address issues. He said that board includes an officer in the Lehigh Valley Sierra Club.
One woman complained many more city residents would have attended the meeting but did not know about it. DEP officials said they advertised the meeting on three different days in a local newspaper. It also was announced on wfmz.com on Oct. 10.and posted on DEP's website.
"I'm sorry if you don't know about this project," Atty. Marcel Groen of the Delta Thermo team told the woman who complained. "At some point, the responsibility is yours."
While the woman said she never before heard about the project, last year hundreds of people attended several lengthy public meetings, including city council meetings, before it was approved. More recently, it was reviewed and approved at public meetings of the city's planning commission.
Some residents want formal hearing
Standing on both sides of Irving Street before the meeting, a small group of sign-carrying protestors chanted.
"What do we want?"
"A public hearing."
"When do we want it?"
Several passing drivers blew their horns and gave them a thumbs-up.
But DEP will not schedule a formal public hearing on Delta Thermo, said Connolly.
After the meeting, she said the time for the public to ask for a formal hearing "has come and gone." She indicated people should have asked for it last summer.
McGuire, the first person to speak, was applauded when he said the meeting was not a substitute for a hearing. And a woman in the audience told DEP that people at the meeting had demonstrated there is sufficient public interest and public opposition to the project "to warrant a real public hearing where we can make our comments available on the public record."
Delta Thermo has applied for air quality and waste management permits from DEP
One DEP official explained Delta Thermo's waste management application was published in the Pennsylvania Bulletin "as complete" on Jan. 13.
He said a 60-day public comment period followed that publication, but the only comments received came from the Pennsylvania Waste Industries Association.
DEP also has published a notice in the Pennsylvania Bulletin that it intends to issue an air quality permit. It allows 30 days for comment.
Ray Kempa of DEP called Wednesday's night's meeting a public hearing.
"We're here to listen to your comments and will take them into consideration in final preparation of the permit," he said.
But Connolly said: "This is a public meeting as opposed to a public hearing. We felt a public meeting has a more open dialogue where we can answer your questions and you can get an idea of what the project looks like and how DEP operates."
Connolly said written comments will be accepted by DEP until Nov. 8.
She said they should be sent to DEP Northeast Regional Office, 2 Public Square, Wilkes-Barre, PA 18701-1915
Moderating the meeting
Connolly had her hands full moderating the meeting.
She asked people not to yell, applaud or interrupt others –instructions many ignored.
At the start, she said people could ask questions or make statements, but later she interrupted people making statements by asking: "What is your question?" She also cut some people off, saying their remarks were not relevant to the DEP permitting process for Delta Thermo.
Connolly repeatedly threatened to have people removed from the auditorium for being disruptive. She came close to doing it when at least one woman made loud heckling remarks whenever she disagreed with someone -- and did not heed Connolly's personal warning to remain quiet. The woman told Connolly she was just coughing.
Another woman in the audience said she was insulted by the way the meeting was conducted, suggesting the people at the front of the room were ducking what they did not want to answer.
At the end of the meeting, one woman approached the microphone for a second time, saying DEP owed her 30 more seconds to speak. "We're done," said Connolly.
Several other people in the audience began noisily hooting and complaining,
Al Wirth, a Lehigh University professor, took the microphone to speak, saying he had been told he did not need to sign up to do so. He began saying what he wanted to say, but the meeting had been declared over and most people were leaving the auditorium.
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