Effort to thwart Allentown's waste-to-energy plant underway

Group hopes to get initiative on the May ballot

Posted: 2:53 PM EST Dec 18, 2012   Updated: 6:19 PM EST Dec 18, 2012

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.”

Asked if it would be too expensive to build, he replied: “That’s for them to say.”
Ewall said he already drafted a very lengthy ordinance that would regulate any type of incinerator plant built in the city. “It will be focused on air pollution.”

Elaborating after the meeting, Ewall explained his draft ordinance would require Delta Thermo to continuously monitor emissions from the plant, to report emissions of numerous toxic chemicals “in real time” on a publicly-accessible Web site and to be fined, using penalties stipulated in the ordinance, when those emissions are in violation.

More than the cost of adding monitoring equipment to measure all those chemicals, he said what would kill the project is that companies “are afraid of having any accountability. Companies are getting away with putting out the pollution they do because no one knows what they are putting out. For toxins, they measure once a year or not at all.”

But Van Naarden, head of Delta Thermo, said his plant will have an analysis and monitoring system assessing what’s coming out of its exhaust stack. He said that information will be made available to the city via computer on a real-time basis “uncontrolled by us.”

Van Naarden said Delta Thermo is doing that “at a significant additional expense” to the plant design even though no state or federal regulation requires it, because “we’re being extremely open and we’re very confident about the data. We feel very confident about this design and its lack of significant pollutants.”

“We are going over and above what is normally required,” said the Delta Thermo CEO. “It’s the right thing to do. We have nothing to hide.” He said the city will have control over that data and could share it with the public if it chooses to do so.

During the meeting, Ewall said “any company with a smokestack they want to sell you” will say it will have continuous and strict monitoring by the state “and if anything coming out of the stack goes over the state’s limit, we’ll be fined heavily.” But he said the state only requires monitoring of three or four pollutants.

“All the mercury, dioxins, lead, arsenic and all these other things that are going to cause cancer in your kids and cause others problems are not going to be continuously monitored,” maintained Ewall. “Even though the technology exists to do that, they are not going to be required to do that and they definitely are not going to volunteer to do that.”

“We are voluntarily doing that,” repeated Van Naarden, adding the plant’s stack monitoring system will monitor for every type of toxic chemical.

Van Naarden said his Allentown plant is being designed by a German engineering company, using German standards that are far stricter than those of the federal Environmental Protection Agency or the state Department of Environmental Protection. And he said it is being designed to beat Japanese standards, “which are by far the toughest in the world.”

Monday night’s meeting was organized by the Lehigh Valley Coffee Party, which claims 56 members, and the Lehigh Valley International Workers of the World, which claims 10 members and a few dozen supporters.

More than five people at Monday’s meeting immediately volunteered to serve on that committee. They included Marvin Wheeler, Rich Fegley, Diane Teti and Joe Shields.

Said Wheeler: “My primary reason for coming here is to see how to mobilize my community.”