Bethlehem Landfill

Bethlehem resident Sophie Collins is a senior at Lehigh University studying economics and environmental studies

Despite the City of Bethlehem’s goal to “Reduce the impact of current waste collection and disposal systems,” which comprises a whole chapter of the city’s Climate Action Plan (CAP, 148), Bethlehem’s mayor has failed to take any formal action opposing Lower Saucon Township’s efforts to expand Bethlehem Landfill.

Several surrounding municipalities and Northampton County, including Easton and Hellertown, have publicly opposed the expansion at Lower Saucon Township’s “conditional-use” permit hearings. They successfully intervened in the judicial proceedings to get impacted party status in legal actions opposing the landfill, initiated by a group of citizens. Bethlehem officials claim that “the city does not have a unique reason beyond just general opposition to a landfill that would allow them to qualify for party status” (The Morning Call).

In 1998, the City of Bethlehem sold the landfill property to the Bethlehem Landfill Company. The sale came with the option for the Landfill Company to also purchase the neighboring 201.7 acres, which has since then been put into conservation easements by the City of Bethlehem, creating a nice forested buffer around the northeastern sides of the landfill, obstructing what could otherwise be an eyesore visible from the beautiful canal path that runs along the Lehigh River. Last fall, the Landfill Company opted in on its option to buy the conserved land around the landfill, and it now plans to undo those easements so that the area where trash is disposed can be expanded, making it possible for trash to accumulate there for an additional 30 years. While elected officials who decided to sell the Bethlehem Landfill to reduce their $37 million debt 25 years ago may have had a good reason to do so, there is no good reason to excuse our current mayor for not abiding by the goals laid out in his much-championed Climate Action Plan (CAP), which at the very least would mean doing something to reduce waste in Bethlehem.

Under the Local Food and Waste section of the CAP, the city resolves to “Encourage best practices for waste management at local transfer stations and landfills” (161) with special considerations to environmental justice. Downhill of the northern slope of the Landfill, which is where the expansion will increasingly spread into, lies Steel City, a working class community that has already suffered from heightened exposure to polluted water, soil, and air as well as lower property value due to its close proximity to the landfill. The health and economic burdens felt by these residents will only worsen by the landfill doubling in size.

The CAP clearly states that “The city should not contract with waste disposal facilities that burden environmental justice communities” (161). Their sale of land directly plays against the CAP yet they claim to have no unique reason to qualify for party status. If Bethlehem’s mayor really cared about these disproportionate impacts on frontline communities, he would at least convey his interest in finding a way to stop the landfill expansion, rather than washing his hands of the controversy. If these goals were legitimately written to prevent environmental degradation and environmental injustices, then the city officials should care that their sale of land and absence thereafter will directly impact the neighboring communities and contradict these very goals.

Another one of Bethlehem’s CAP goals is to “Maximize waste diversion from landfills” (148). The Local Food and Waste Implementation Committee have two goals for 2022 that are working towards this:

1. “Facilitate conversations with large event organizers in the City about implementing Zero Waste practices at large festivals and events.”

2. “Conduct a public education campaign to improve waste management practices”

Facilitating conversations and public education is a start towards maximizing waste diversion to landfills, but they have yet to accomplish any of their actionable items from the CAP. Curbside composting, textile recycling, and an anaerobic digestive program could significantly reduce Bethlehem’s waste, having a more direct and immediate impact, so that our waste does not end up in the backyard of people in Steel City, or any other community.

The Committee also stated that one of its goals for 2022 is to “Develop a better understanding of the city’s current waste streams.” The city does not even know how much of our waste is ending up in the Bethlehem landfill. The mayor should require all waste haulers in the city to provide this data now to demonstrate some commitment to actually implementing the CAP. Without monitoring or transparent progress reporting, the public has no way of knowing how much we are contributing to the local waste problem, and what more we can do to stop it.

To live up to the stated intention to be a truly progressive environmental city, the mayor could also take a public stand opposing the increased volume of filthy leachate the city will have to take from the landfill to be processed at Bethlehem’s water treatment plant. The Landfill Company has already admitted in legal testimony that it will have to renegotiate its contract with Bethlehem’s water treatment plant because there will be an increased volume of leachate that needs to be processed there. The City of Bethlehem has a chance to take a stand for environmental justice and against the increased burdening of our rivers with chemical fifth that those who live downstream will otherwise have to suffer from for another 30 years. It’s time to get the CAP off the shelf in City Hall and start putting it into action.