South Bethlehem and Clean Water

I sat down with Rachel Rosenfeld – Community Outreach Coordinator for the Pennsylvania Chapter of the Sierra Club in order to discuss environmental concerns on the South Side of Bethlehem and in the larger Lehigh Valley. Rachel works in the Lehigh Valley to establish a grassroots network of advocates focused on the importance of protecting clean water. Some of her duties include making presentations to local colleges, educating area residents, and attending local government meetings. Our region is facing a series of unique environmental challenges and the Sierra Club is working with local communities to offer unique solutions. 

When asked what the most pressing environmental issue is within the Lehigh Valley, Rachel was quick to answer, “Clean Water.” Aside from maybe clean air, clean water is the single most important resource to human life and all other life forms. There are a few main threats to clean water that directly affect South Bethlehem, some looming and some imminent. The first threat is pollution from abandoned mines in the upper portion of the Lehigh River. Former coal mines are expensive and difficult to tear down cleanly; so, the status quo has been to leave abandoned mines as they are. The danger is that these mines drain directly into tributaries of the Lehigh River, carrying harmful metals such as iron, zinc, and aluminum. These metals harshly impact the aquatic life and ecosystems in the river, disrupting it in unpredictable ways. The cost of safe demolition or remediation of abandoned mines is high and it is quite difficult to find volunteers for this job even if the money can be found. 

Mines are the threat to clean water from the north, but there is also a threat from all sides of the Lehigh River: increasing development. The area surrounding the river is increasingly being developed and, when paired with the increased rainfall in the region, stormwater runoff carrying pollutants into the Lehigh River has become a major issue. 2018 was one of the rainiest years in the region’s history with 64.75 inches, 20 inches above what is considered normal.  Time will tell what 2019 will bring, but more precipitation paired with more development means more runoff into the Lehigh River as well as more potential pollutants. Development comes with construction of roads and buildings and homes, cutting down trees, disturbing ecosystems, and introducing a plethora of potential pollutants. After all, Rachel stressed to me that anything can be a pollutant in excess, even something as natural and seemingly harmless as leaves. 

The last threat to clean water in the Lehigh Valley and South Bethlehem that Rachel and I discussed was the proposed PennEast Pipeline. She compared it to the Mariner East Pipeline, which is a series of pipelines carrying natural gas liquids horizontally across Pennsylvania. Rachel actually visited the construction site of another pipeline, the Atlantic Sunrise, which bisects Lebanon County,  and argues that it would be certainly comparable to the proposed pipeline in our region.

Construction of the Atlantic Sunrise pipeline in Lebanon, PA. Photo Credit: Rachel Rosenfeld, Sierra Club PA
Another look at the construction process far a natural gas pipeline.
Photo credit: Rachel Rosenfeld, Sierra Club PA

One of the main concerns with any pipeline construction is clear-cutting trees and other vegetation. Tree removal can disrupt ecosystems, fragment habitats and divide species who lived in that ecosystem; it also increases the amount of runoff into local bodies of water. Cloudy, foggy water can be a side effect of construction runoff due to clear-cutting. Additionally, with the pipeline being proposed to be underground and sometimes under waterways, it would be continuously under an immense amount of pressure thereby threatening to compromise the safety of the pipeline itself and the waterways above it. Rachel notes that pipeline construction also can lead to sinkholes. 

Another concern with the PennEast Pipeline is the red tape (or lack thereof) regarding natural gas. By law, natural gas and pipeline companies are not required to declare exactly what is inside and being transported by the pipelines; the exact content is unknown and it is thus difficult to analyse exactly what might happen if there were to be a leak, or an explosion, or a spill into a local body of water. Natural gas is not as highly regulated in this regard as are water and air under the Clean Water Act and the Clean Air Act, which require specific declarations about the status of air and water. 

Currently the PennEast Pipeline is at a standstill – and the Sierra Club is continuously pushing for a permanent ban on its construction. If construction of the pipeline moves ahead, Lehigh Valley residents should be aware of the risks. We also look for murky, discolored, or smelly drinking water, increased amounts of dying aquatic life, and/or cloudy bodies of water as these are a few signs of dangerous water pollution that must be reported if recognized. The Sierra Club works closely with communities, especially those facing particular environmental crises, and relies on volunteers and community effort for many of its various accomplishments. The Lehigh Valley should continue to lean on them as a resource as we explore how to best protect our communities and the environment. 

*Feature photo credit: Rachel Rosenfeld*

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