Putting a Focus on Community Involvement

Nearly two years after the plan was approved, Allentown residents demonstrated at a recent town meeting over the city's proposed waste-to-energy facility.

Plans call for Bucks County-based Delta Thermo Energy to build a 48,000-square-foot waste-to-energy incineration plant on the city’s Kline Island. The state Department of Environmental Protection is considering issuing several permits for the facility, and held the hearing in response to public concerns about the proposal. The long-term consequences of developing such a facility in a metropolitan are the focus of a recent project by students in Lehigh University’s Environmental Design Policy (EPD) program.

“Allentown is a classic environmental justice case, and it’s unfolding before us. We’re asking, what does it mean to create these externalities and push them onto a community that is already struggling with socioeconomic statuses,” says EPD student Sarabeth Brockley. “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 but overall 86 percent make-up the city center along with poor blacks and poor whites living 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 professor Breena Holland’s environmental justice course, Brockley and a team of classmates were tasked to study the case, but became socially involved and decided to try to engage others with this issue.  The team went into the community to inform community members of the health impact of this 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 1 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, and most importantly, that community, my hometown community aren’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 is not a new effort for Brockley. Prior to arriving at Lehigh, she served in the Peace Corps as a community environmental management volunteer, living in Levanto, a remote village in northern Peru. She notes there are similarities between the community work she does currently 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, she 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 diminishing the reliance on agriculture while promoting and empowering women non-traditional leadership roles.

She lived in a village of about 500 people, and she was also one of the newest members to be sent to the region, a 24-hour bus ride from Lima over mountains jagged terrain, no plumbing and an open fire stove. 

Brockley says working in the Peace Corps 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 and I think that’s true for any community development effort you work on. 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.”

Between the Peace Corps and joining 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 examining what it might be like to sustain life on Mars, an expedition projected for 2021. 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 complimentary species growth to provide the best nutrition in an astronaut’s diet.

Brockley has taken her background and put it to immediate use in the EPD program. She recently was selected as a civil society delegate for a Research and Independent Non-Governmental Organization (RINGOS) and travelled to Warsaw, Poland to attend the Committee of the Parties 19, United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). The opportunity for the high-level status came from her undergraduate alma mater, Moravian College who has sent students and faculty to the conference each year, and was made possible through funding within the Environmental Initiative through the EPD program. It was a 12-day workshop and negotiation event where world leaders argued over the very same philosophy the EPD asks of its grad students.  How do you improve policy decisions surrounding environmentally-geared debates?  

“Science and policy are complimentary. Questions always focus on who/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.”