An attempt to stop an approved waste-to-energy plant in Allentown has resulted in a proposed clean air ordinance on the agenda of Wednesday night’s Allentown City Council meeting.
Even though City Council approved the plant more than a year ago, construction has not yet started.
Opponents hope council soon will adopt the 15-page ordinance, which requires such tough environmental controls and monitoring equipment that the plant could be unaffordable.
Council won’t even discuss the proposal Wednesday night and may not let the public talk about it either.
If council eventually votes against the proposed ordinance or takes no action on it, approval will be decided by city voters in November.
Rob Van Naarden, president of Delta Thermo Energy, said construction of his company’s waste-to-energy plant will begin “in the very near future.” He said he could not be more specific, but confirmed he still intends for it to be operational by next year.
“I’ll put money on the fact that this plant will never get built,” said Atty. Mike Ewall, founder and director of the Energy Justice Network, who helped organize local opposition to the plant. His Philadelphia-based national organization supports communities “threatened by polluting energy and waste technologies.”
“I’ve seen a lot of incinerator fights in my time,” said Ewall, “but it’s rare that it’s this certain this is the one we’re going to win. I’m highly optimistic.”
What Ewall predicts will stop the plant from being built is a section of the ordinance requiring that air pollution control devices be installed to ensure pollutants released are no dirtier than those emitted by a natural gas power plant.
“What we’re asking them to do is technically possible,” said Ewall. “But equipment to take all those pollutants out of the air is very expensive.”
Another precedent-setting aspect of the ordinance is the plant would be required to install real-time monitors, to constantly monitor emissions coming from it. And it would have to constantly make public the results of that monitoring, on a web site managed by the city.
Ewall said the monitoring and pollution control aspects could add millions of dollars to the cost of what Delta Thermo says will be a $49-million plant.
He doesn’t believe Delta Thermo will agree to install such controls, not only because of the additional expense, but because doing so would create a new standard for such plants that will not please the rest of the incineration industry.
Targeting one plant
The ordinance prepared by Ewall applies only to a new waste-burning facility in Allentown that can burn one ton or more of solid waste or other solid fuel, such as coal, every day.
Van Naarden said he has read the proposed ordinance and it clearly is targeting his waste-to-energy project.
Supporters of the ordinance agree. “Unquestionably,” said Ewall. “That is the whole plan.”
Said Van Naarden: “It’s inappropriate to target a single company and its plant.”
Asked if he had any response to the ordinance, Van Naarden said: “I don’t want to say anything disparaging because it doesn’t serve any purpose.”
But he added Delta Thermo must and will comply with emission-controlling regulations of the state Department of Environmental Protection and federal Environmental Protection Agency. He doesn’t understand how Allentown can adopt a city ordinance that is more stringent than those state and federal regulations.
Allentown Mayor Ed Pawlowski also questions how such an ordinance would “blend with numerous state and federal environmental laws, rules and regulations, and emission standards.”
“We’ll let the city decide what they want to do with it,” said Van Naarden of the ordinance. “Our company has nothing to do with it.”
Petitioning for an ordinance
City Clerk Michael Hanlon has validated that opponents – who have organized a committee called Allentown Residents for Clean Air – collected 2,175 signatures, 175 more than they need to get the ordinance before City Council.
Opponents actually gathered more than 3,500 signatures on petitions but more than 1,000 were not valid, because signers did not live in the city, were not registered voters, gave illegible signatures or signed more than one petition.