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Landfill owner dumps $75,000 into Lower Saucon Township Council race

Bethlehem landfill truck outside 4
Tyler Pratt
A truck drives outside the Bethlehem Landfill off Applebutter Road in Lower Saucon Township. The landfill is one of the main issues in the campaign for Lower Saucon Township council this election season. (Photo | Tyler Pratt / WLVR)

LOWER SAUCON TOWNSHIP, Pa. - The Texas-based company that owns the Bethlehem Landfill in Lower Saucon Township has dumped at least $75,000 into the township council race since August, according to campaign finance reports.

An executive of landfill operator Waste Connections founded a political action committee, Responsible Solutions for Pennsylvania, that has spent tens of thousands in an effort to get a Republican slate of candidates elected.

Talk about the possibility of expanding the landfill to make more room for trash has become a point of contention in the council race.

Waste Connections of The Woodlands, Texas, operates waste management services throughout the U.S. and Canada.

Sue Severn lives on Applebutter Road not far from the landfill entrance. It’s a hilly place between the Lehigh River and Interstate 78, with big trees, marshes and old farmhouses that go back hundreds of years.

Her yard butts up against the edge of the Bethlehem Landfill. 

“Doesn’t that smell pretty?” Severn said, standing on her back porch. “It’s garbage. Stinky, nasty garbage.”

A foul smell blows through her yard. 

“They are probably dumping a big load,” Severn said. “Then they mash into it. And the wind is blowing today so you’ll get more of it. Because you can get a ‘whiff of jif’ better that way.”

There’s also the noise. 

From early in the morning until mid-afternoon five to six days a week, large trucks from all over Pennsylvania, New Jersey and New York line up to dump trash in the landfill. 

“The trailers bang to get the garbage out,” Severn said. “It makes a lot of racket. They have a roller they go up and down, the bulldozers, and you can hear the backup beepers. Every now and then it shocks you. They’re pretty loud.”

An important revenue source

The landfill doesn’t negatively impact everyone in Lower Saucon. Where Severn lives is rural, and the more populous side of the U-shaped township doesn’t see or smell the dump. 

Jason Banonis is vice president of Lower Saucon Township Council

“I’m not hearing the overwhelming wave of criticism and concern, and if there was, it would need to be addressed,” Banonis said. “Even if one or two people are affected by this.”

Bethlehem landfill truck with campaign signs 3
Tyler Pratt
Campaign signs for Democratic and Republican teams line the road along the Bethlehem Landfill in Lower Saucon Township. (Photo | Tyler Pratt / WLVR)

Banonis and another council member, Tom Carocci, are running for re-election. They, along with another Republican, Jen Zavacky, are running as a team for the three open seats on the five-person council. If two of them win, Republicans will maintain a majority.

“The biggest thing facing our township right now is the uncertainty of our fiscal situation,” Banonis said.

The landfill has around since the 1940s. Bethlehem Landfill pays Lower Saucon $1 million to $2 million dollars a year in host fees to operate. 

“The landfill is roughly a third of the township's budget,” Banonis said.

Banonis says this constant income stream keeps the township debt-free, helping also to maintain an 18-month surplus of cash on hand. He said that enables the council to do things like lower property taxes. 

But the landfill is almost full. And if the trucks stop coming, the money dries up.

“In four or five years if this landfill closes, the $2 million a year they give to us goes away,” Banonis said. “We have a cushion to give us time to increase our tax base from other sources.” 

Bethlehem Landfill is exploring options to reconfigure the site and it is also buying nearby properties. What comes next , including a possible expansion, is a hot-button issue in the township.

That’s where landfill operator Waste Connections comes in.

A closer look at the PAC

Responsible Solutions for Pennsylvania was founded by Andrew Moss, the Northeast Division government affairs manager for Waste Connections. The PAC is based in Westchester County, New York. 

In a letter earlier this year from Waste Connections to landfill neighbor Severn, Moss said the landfill planned to move closer to her Applebutter Road home, and offered her $10,000 as compensation. Moss also offered to buy Severn’s property for 115% the market rate, according to the letter. Severn said she wasn’t interested in either offer.

Moss told WLVR News his PAC supports the Republican slate of candidates.

In an email he said, “Responsible Solutions for Pennsylvania was founded for the purpose of educating the public on candidates who support lower taxes, economic growth and safe neighborhoods. In the race for Lower Saucon Township Council Jennifer Zavacky, Thomas Carocci and Jason Banonis are the quality, hard-working candidates that will best serve the taxpayers.”

Waste Connections donated $75,000 to Responsible Solutions for Pennsylvania, according to their latest campaign finance report. It was set up as an Independent Expenditure Committee, and according to the Federal Election Commission, contributions cannot be made in coordination with any candidate.

Banonis says he’s not affiliated with the PAC and doesn’t know Moss. 

“I don’t know who they are or what they are doing.” Banonis said. “Clearly they like what we are doing in Lower Saucon Township. I guess they recognize it’s good to cut taxes and be fiscally responsible in the sound management of the township.” 

Campaign filings for the Republican candidates show they have not received any contributions from Waste Connections.

But the finance report for Responsible Solutions for Pennsylvania shows the PAC has spent thousands on political consultants in Tampa, Florida, for polling, surveys, advertising and get-out-the-vote door-walking services in Lower Saucon. That included door hangers, mailers and a website that featured the Republican candidates’ names and photos, labeled “Vote Republican.”

Lower Saucon Township pays council members $3,250 a year. So far, Waste Solutions has given the PAC four and half times more money than the annual stipend for the entire Lower Saucon Township council.

This worries one of the Democratic candidates for council, Victoria Opthof-Cordaro.

“One of my biggest concerns is that we have council members who are at the mercy of the landfill and their financial support when there is an election,” Opthof-Cordaro said. 

The Democrats in the race

Opthof-Cordaro, along with Democrats George Gress and Tom Roney, are also running as a coalition to try to secure the three open township council seats. And in their campaign they are highlighting the money the PAC is spending, saying it’s not the first time this has happened.

“A PAC with the same exact name operated in 2015, also when the landfill wanted to seek expansion before the Department of Environmental Protection,” Opthof-Cordaro said.

Local news outlets like The Morning Call reported that the landfill’s previous owner indirectly poured upwards of $95,000 into that race. 

Bethlehem landfill trucks lined up 1
Tyler Pratt
Trucks line up at the Bethlehem Landfill along Applebutter Road in Lower Saucon Township in October 2021. (Photo | Tyler Pratt / WLVR)

Opthof-Cordaro said while there now is no official plan to expand the landfill past its zoned boundaries, she wonders what will happen if the Republicans win after the waste company PAC spent so much money to get them elected. 

“It is an inappropriate connection to a business in our township that does significant work and significant damage to our land,” Opthof-Cordaro said.

She’d like to have more oversight over the landfill and she said she wants to look for new sources of revenue for the township.

“I feel we need to expand our tax base to other commercial entities so that we don’t need to rely on the landfill moving forward,” Opthof-Cordaro said. 

She and Banonis agree on finding other income sources. Both have proposed ideas to foster more businesses in the area to create new revenue.

“I’m not anti-landfill,” Opthof-Cordaro said. “If I were elected to council my job would be to protect everybody’s interests.

“If I were an idealist … I would say that we would allow the landfill to finish out its current expansions that have been approved and maybe we can turn that into something else moving forward that is more beneficial to all the residents -- something that doesn’t have any odor, that doesn’t pollute our water, that doesn’t take all our rural agricultural land and turn it into a dump. I think Lower Saucon is better than being a dump.” 

Severn, the landfill neighbor, says she’s not confident the site will ever close. She’s seen it continue to expand for years. 

“I went to all the meetings to fight [the expansions] but [they] go through because it's big business,” Severn said. “Everyone just throws their garbage out and they never think about where it goes.” 

But this year, Severn, a Republican, says she’s giving the other party a chance and voting for the Democrats, hoping it will help her house feel more like a home and less like a dump. 

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