A plan to thwart the nearly-approved waste-to-energy plant in Allentown was hatched in the basement of a city church Monday night.

A way to stop the plant was outlined by Atty. Mike Ewall, founder and director of the Philadelphia-based Energy Justice Network, during a meeting in the community room of St. James United Church of Christ at 15th and Walnut streets. Fewer than 20 people attended the meeting, including two reporters.

Ewall’s Energy Justice Network is a national organization that supports communities “threatened by polluting energy and waste technologies.” Ewall, 38, was born and raised in Bucks County. He said his organization has a long history of assisting grassroots efforts in Pennsylvania, including in the Lehigh Valley.

Ewall is hoping to get a question on the ballot of the May primary that would let city voters decide if they want Allentown to adopt a tough ordinance regulating what he calls an incinerator.

He hopes voters will approve that ordinance -- and that its strict environmental requirements will cause Delta Thermo Energy, Inc., to give up on its $49-million Allentown project.

“I see nothing that’s going to stand in the way of us building this facility,” said Rob Van Naarden, president and CEO of Delta Thermo, after the Monday night meeting. He sees “no threat” in what the plant’s opponents will attempt to do.

Mike Moore, Allentown’s communications coordinator, said a ballot initiative that would limit how much pollution an incinerator built in the city would emit raises the question of how such a local ordinance “would blend with numerous state and federal environmental laws, rules, regulations and emission standards.”

Because city officials have just learned what opponents hope to do, Moore said the administration has not had nearly enough time “to adequately research, analyze and come up with reasoned answers” to news media inquiries.

Time will tell whether the plant’s opponents can move quickly enough to get the issue on the May 21 primary ballot. After they register a five-member petitioners committee with the city, that committee will have 60 days to gather at least 2,000 signatures on petitions. They plan to begin gathering signatures in early January, which would give them until early March.

After the petitions are collected, the city clerk’s office will have up to 20 days to determine if a sufficient number of those who signed are registered voters living in the city. Even if that petition review is completed before mid-March, City Council has another 60 days to act on the proposal and then the Lehigh County elections board has to act to put it on the ballot.

Incinerator petition organizers will follow a trail being taken by opponents of the city’s planned water and sewer system lease, who are much further along in getting a question on the May ballot that asks if voter approval should be required for the sale or lease of any city property worth more than $10 million.

Ewall believes the incinerator ordinance question can be put on the same ballot.

Ewall said what he is proposing is an initiative, not a referendum. He explained an initiative is something new, such as his proposed incinerator ordinance, while a referendum proposes overturning a decision made by City Council.

In early March, after public meetings and much debate, City Council approved a 35-year contract with Delta Thermo to build the plant. Allentown’s planning commission intends to approve the project in January, after it receives a review from the Lehigh Valley Planning Commission.

“Local officials already drank the Kool-Aid on this,” said Ewall.

The proposed plant will burn Allentown’s municipal solid waste and sewage sludge to produce electricity. Ewall maintained both are “very toxic and dangerous.” Van Naarden said it is “misguided” for people to assume the plant is going to pollute.

Van Naarden said construction of the waste-to-energy plant will begin in March or April. He plans to have it operational by August 2014.

If an ordinance regulating that plant gets on the ballot and is approved by a majority of city voters, it will not be too late to stop the Delta Thermo project, said Ewall.

“There is no grandfathering here,” he said. “They can have the plant up and running before the ordinance is adopted and it still would apply to them.”
Ewall expressed skepticism about Delta Thermo’s proposed construction prediction: “These companies often act like construction is just around the corner when it’s not. They might never get financing.”

He explained: “Most of these plants fall apart on their own because they can’t get financing, because no one wants to invest in it. It would be great if it would be that easy, but we can’t just sit back and hope for that.”

“We’ve got people competing to finance this plant,” responded Van Naarden. “I get multiple calls a day from people who want to participate in financing it. It’s going to happen.”

Van Naarden added: “We received substantial grants from the state and federal government to make sure this happens. Those agencies that gave us the grants would not have given us the money unless they were confident this was something they wanted.”

The waste-to-energy plant will be built next to the Allentown sewage treatment plant, which is along the Lehigh River near Union Street.

Ewall claimed “environmental racism” is behind the location of the plant, saying 86 percent of nearby residents “are people of color” – primarily Hispanics.
Asked about environmental racism after the meeting, Van Naarden said: “That’s a little far out. I don’t know what that means.”

Ewall declined to reveal some specifics of his plan to stop the waste-to-energy plant because two reporters were at the Monday night meeting. When later asked how proposing an ordinance to regulate such a plant would stop the Delta Thermo project, he said: “That’s the one that’s dangerous for me to talk about.”
Asked if that ordinance would be so stringent that it would be impossible to build a plant in Allentown, Ewall replied: “I don’t think anything is impossible, if they want to put enough pollution controls on it to comply.”