Allentown Residents for Clean Air Says Judge Varricchio Got it Wrong


ALLENTOWN – The Allentown Residents for Clean Air group (ARCA) says that Judge Michele Varricchio got it all wrong when she denied Allentown voters the right to vote on a clean air ordinance this November.  ARCA members collected over 2,000 signatures to bring this ordinance to the voters in response to plans by Delta Thermo Energy to burn 150 tons per day of trash and sewage sludge in the city.

On August 27, the Lehigh County Board of Elections ruled that the Allentown Clean Air Ordinance initiative cannot go to the voters because it “does not properly recognize and account for the Department of Environmental Protection’s mandated approval role.”  On appeal, brought by ARCA members, the Lehigh County Court of Common Pleas agreed, once again denying voters the right to vote on the clean air initiative.

The judge’s opinion, issued Wednesday, appears to contradict her statements in court last Friday.  The conflict comes down to whether a local government, like the City of Allentown, can adopt its own air pollution law without approval by the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP).  Petitioners supporting the Clean Air Ordinance argue that the ordinance is authorized under a section of the state’s Air Pollution Control Act — 35 P.S. 4012(a) — which allows any local government to adopt stricter air pollution laws without state approval.  The county and Delta Thermo Energy argue that the ordinance falls under another section of law — 35 P.S. 4012(b) — which applies only to Philadelphia and Allegheny Counties, allowing those counties to adopt comprehensive air pollution programs that replace the role of DEP.  Only 4012(b) requires DEP approval.

In court last Friday, Judge Varricchio stated clearly that “(b) does not apply,” giving much hope to supporters of the Clean Air Ordinance.

“The Judge’s statement in the courtroom was correct, but apparently she changed her mind over the weekend,” said Rich Fegley, one of the Clean Air Ordinance petitioners.  “If her ruling stands, communities throughout the state will lose their rights to adopt local air pollution laws stricter than the state minimums.  DEP would be given veto authority over local governments and citizens.  They’re not an agency known to support the rights of local governments.”

“We are not giving up. We have already appealed this decision to the Commonwealth Court.  One way or another, this incinerator will be stopped. Allentown ranks 11th on the list of asthma capitals and there is too much cancer in our community –  we can’t allow such a toxic industry to make things worse,” said Diane Teti, one of the petitioners.

“I was dismayed, but, sadly, not surprised when three appointed Election Board officials took it upon themselves to cancel an election and disregard petitions of 2,200 Allentown voters. I recognize that there is a big gap between the interests of the people and the interests of government officials.  I am, however, amazed that a judge would uphold such an arbitrary and capricious denial of the democratic process, and support the county officials taking away the rights of the citizens of the city.  The judge’s decision declares that in Lehigh County, Allentonians’ City Charter rights to petition for a referendum are subject to approval by unelected county officials, and the opinions of state DEP political appointees in Harrisburg.  Neither the American tradition of democracy nor the Pennsylvania Air Pollution Control Act supports Judge Varricchio’s decision,” said county resident Al Wurth, a political science professor at Lehigh University in Bethlehem.

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