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.
“Collecting signatures was easy, when people heard what is proposed,” said Michele Bowers, co-chair of Allentown Residents For Clean Air. “A lot of people had no idea what the city has in mind.”
The proposed Clean Air ordinance – Bill 26 – is on council’s agenda for introduction Wednesday night. Council president Julio Guridy said council members will not discuss it at that meeting. Following a council tradition of allowing no public comment at the introduction of a bill on the agenda, he also does not intend to let the public to speak on in it at the meeting.
Guridy will schedule a committee-of-the-whole meeting where council will discuss if it wants to vote on the proposed ordinance. Public comment on the proposal will be heard at that meeting. Guridy said he has not polled council to find out what its members will want to do.
“I want to make sure we’re doing the right thing for the safety of Allentown citizens, regardless of what the petitioners want or what the company wants,” said the council president.
Hanlon said City Council has until June 21 to act -- 60 days from April 22, when he confirmed in writing that sufficient legitimate signatures had been submitted.
If City Council votes for the ordinance, it becomes law, but Ewall predicted it probably won’t do that.
If council does not act on it or votes it down, Hanlon said it will be forwarded to Lehigh County’s elections office “for the next available election.”
Good for the city
If approving the ordinance becomes a ballot question, members of Allentown Residents for Clean Air will have until November to convince enough city voters that the waste-to-energy plant is a bad idea.
But Van Naarden said if residents take the time to get educated about what Delta Thermo plans to do, they will realize “this is really good for the city.”
Pawlowski said Allentown will save tens of millions of dollars over the life of the 35-year Delta Thermo contract and won’t have to worry about the dwindling availability of landfill space.
“This is innovative and cutting-edge environmental technology designed to eliminate the need to landfill city trash, thus improving the environment and saving the city taxpayer for decades to come,” said Allentown’s mayor. “It was for those reasons that the city explored and entertained alternative garbage disposal technologies."
Van Naarden agreed it’s not just about saving money: “What we’re doing is good for the environment.”
Construction not started
The 48,000-square-foot plant will be built on three acres leased from the city, between Union Street and Allentown’s sewage treatment plant. It will operate round-the-clock, burning 108 tons of the city’s municipal solid waste and 42 tons of its sewage sludge every day to produce electricity.
Previously, Van Naarden said construction of the plant would begin by March or April of this year. Ewall said he’s not surprised that didn’t happen, maintaining builders of such plants always say the start of construction is just around the corner when it isn’t.
Late Friday afternoon, Van Naarden said the property and building site have been staked, He said the next steps will be clearing the land, building the foundations and installing utilities. “Nothing will be coming out of the ground for quite some time.”
Bowers said the plant, which will be built along the Lehigh River, is being put in a lower income area of the city. “These people have not been given the opportunity to know what’s going on.”
Ewall said if you ask the average person on the street if city residents should have a right to know what’s coming out the stack of a waste-to-energy plant, the reply might be: “Don’t we already know that?” Said Ewall: “The answer is no.”
The proposed ordinance contains civil penalties up to $25,000 a day for each violation and criminal penalties up to $2,500 per violation or 90 days in jail.
Meeting environmental standards
In the spring of 2012, City Council approved a 35-year-contract with Delta Thermo to build the plant, after public meetings and much debate.
"The contract has already been executed with Delta Thermo upon receiving city council approval,” said Pawlowski. “The contract holds them to all state and federal emissions standards, which are extremely stringent. Delta Thermo will need to get permits and approval from both the EPA and DEP before they can begin operation.”
Guridy noted Delta Thermo has said it intends to surpass standards set by DEP and EPA.
Ewall said there’s no way the plant will be built if its operators are held accountable for what comes out of its stack.
Ewall said Delta Thermo already may intend to install expensive control equipment to capture toxins, but added the company has not been very clear with the public about its planned technology for the plant. “There is nothing in writing saying ‘this is the exact process’.”
“These are money-making folks, not folks who are experts in knowing how not to pollute the community,” charged Ewall. “They don’t want to be responsible; they just want to make money.”
“I feel very strongly about this issue,” said Celeste Wadowski, co-chair of Allentown Residents For Clean Air. “We can’t afford another source of horrible pollution. My goal is for people to not have to worry about what they’re breathing. I hope this plant will not be built and that we get some more environmentally aware people on City Council.”
The full proposed ordinance can be seen at stoptheburn.org.