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.