A Holistic Collaboration with Communities

Almost 150 people turned out in protest last fall when the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) held a hearing on a 48,000-square-foot waste-to-energy plant that the city of Allentown is proposing to build next to its wastewater treatment plant along the Little Lehigh Creek.

According to the Morning Call newspaper, officials with Delta Thermo Energy said the facility, which will convert waste and sludge to electricity, “would use technology much cleaner and safer than a landfill alternative.” The company’s bid to build the facility was approved in 2012 by Allentown’s City Council.

Protesters objected to the scale of the project and said the proposed technology was unsafe and untested.

The DEP, which is considering issuing permits for the facility, held the hearing in response to public concerns about the proposal.

The long-term consequences of operating such a facility in a metropolitan area are the focus of a recent project by students in the Environmental Policy Design (EPD) program.

Lehigh University College of Arts and Sciences - Sarabeth Brockley

“Allentown is a classic environmental justice case, and it’s unfolding before us,” says EPD graduate student Sarabeth Brockley. “We’re asking, ‘What does it mean to create these externalities and push them onto a community that is already struggling with socioeconomic statuses.’

“Currently, where the facility is planned, demographics reflect a surrounding community of poorer Hispanics, blacks and whites. The demographics in Allentown weigh heavily towards Hispanic. Overall 86 percent make up the city center, along with poor blacks and poor whites, and they live within a mile of the incinerator.

“Imagine not knowing that the already compromised air quality in Allentown is about to get worse, it will change our lives drastically.”

As part of the environmental justice course taught by Breena Holland, associate professor of political science, Brockley and a team of classmates were assigned to study the case. The students visited the community to inform community members of the health impact of the waste-to-energy plant technology on the people living in the surrounding neighborhoods.

“The question is not only how safe the technology is but also more importantly how safe is it to place an incinerator facility one mile from an elementary school or a growing downtown community,” says Brockley. “The difficulty with this project is that the community does not have the proper information to understand both sides of the issue and they aren’t being equipped with the proper information from their local governments or the private industry building the plant.

“Most importantly, that community, my hometown community, isn’t being included in the decision-making process. For me, that’s a huge problem that highlights the disconnect between the complexity of science and the simplistic policy meant to protect citizens.”

Different neighborhoods, same involvement

Community involvement and a focus on social justice are not new for Brockley. Before enrolling at at Lehigh, she served in the Peace Corps as a community environmental management volunteer, living in Levanto, a remote village in northern Peru. She sees similarities between the community work she does now in Allentown and the work she was doing just a year ago.

“A large part of the methodology is the same. Thankfully it’s simple in foundation: You have to be interested in someone else’s life. Be present in the community. The intersection between want and need is not your decision. Movements depend on the community developing that; however, facilitating a transfer of skills and ideas is important, and that’s where I come in.”

In Peru, Brockley developed three significant projects—a climate-change field course with high-school students, a reforestation project with farmers and a women-focused artisan group. Alta (Artesania Levantina de Turismo y Artisanas) is dedicated to creating alternative sources of income for women in the village and reducing the reliance on agriculture while promoting and empowering women in nontraditional leadership roles.

Brockley lived in a village of about 500 people. She was one of the newest members sent to the region, which is located 24 hours by bus from the capital city of Lima over mountainous terrain.

Working in the Peace Corps, Brockley says, taught her the importance of being able to work with other people, especially when the barriers are not just difference of opinion, but also language and culture.

“It will grind down everything you think you know about interacting with and organizing people,” she says, “and I think that’s true for any community development effort. It’s not about your ideas; it’s about theirs. It’s how you fit into that mold and how you can help facilitate and achieve with them for them. It teaches you to collaborate with people on a more holistic level.”

After leaving the Peace Corps and before enrolling in the EPD program, Brockley served as a fellow at the Mars Desert Research Station (MDRS) in Utah. She was part of an astronomy/ecological team that examined what it might be like to sustain life on Mars. Over the summer she fixed telescopic equipment and developed projects the crew will conduct over the coming year in the station’s greenhouse. She also studied complementary species growth to determine how to provide the best nutrition in an astronaut’s diet.

Brockley has put her background to use in the EPD program. She recently was selected as a civil society delegate for a Research and Independent Non-Governmental Organization and travelled to Warsaw, Poland, to attend the Committee of the Parties 19, United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).

The opportunity came from her undergraduate alma mater, Moravian College, which sends students and faculty to the conference each year, and it was supported by funding from the Environmental Initiative through the EPD program. It consisted of 12 days of workshops and negotiation exercises during which participants discussed the same questions that the EPD asks of its grad students: How do you improve policy decisions surrounding environmental debates?

“Science and policy are complementary,” says Brockley. “Questions always focus on who or what will make the science more approachable, more digestible. My coursework in the EPD program has taken me into parts of environmental policy I never considered previously, and I think that is a great benefit.”

Story by Rob Nichols