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Environment & Science

Allentown official signs letter criticizing Shapiro’s economic development plan, citing environmental justice

shapiro bethlehem township orasure
Ryan Gaylor
Gov. Josh Shapiro speaks at OraSure Technology's Bethlehem Township facility on Jan. 30, 2024, introducing his administration's new 10-year strategic plan for economic development.

ALLENTOWN, Pa. — Asked why she signed on to a letter criticizing Gov. Josh Shapiro’s 10-year, $600 million economic development plan, Allentown councilperson Cecilia "Ce-Ce" Gerlach said, “It's a pretty simple issue of environmental justice.”

“Communities like Allentown, communities of color tend to be most impacted by environmental injustice,” Gerlach said Tuesday. “When I read through the letter and I looked through the governor's plan, I agreed with the points in the letter, so I signed on — it's that simple.”

Gerlach was one of more than 100 businesses, officials, organizations and environmental advocates statewide — but only one of two from the Lehigh Valley — to sign a letter to Shapiro arguing his economic development plan, “Pennsylvania Gets It Done,” fails to prioritize sustainable industries and instead doubles down on fossil fuels.

“While we respect your efforts in this significant undertaking, the proposed plan will worsen Pennsylvania's economic position by linking it to the fossil fuel-driven boom-and-bust economic cycles of the past,” according to the letter. “Instead, we urge you to return to your campaign platform of forging a new path towards a clean and sustainable economy that supports workers and protects the climate.”

Lehigh Valley Stands Up, a nonprofit political organization, also signed the letter.

"Our Lehigh Valley residents, especially our frontline community members, deserve and need a sustainable, inclusive economic development plan."
Lehigh Valley Stands Up

“Our Lehigh Valley residents, especially our frontline community members, deserve and need a sustainable, inclusive economic development plan,” the group said in a statement included with the letter.

A request for additional comment sent to the email listed on the group’s Facebook page was returned undeliverable. Requests for comment to Pennsylvania Stands Up, the group’s parent organization, were not returned.

Shapiro administration officials directed a request for comment from LehighValleyNews.com to a recording of a Feb. 15 news conference in West Philadelphia.

During the conference, Shapiro was asked to address environmentalists’ concerns with the plan. He said it’s a “mischaracterization of where [Pennsylvania] is headed.”

“I think we can be the clean energy capital of the United States, maybe even the world."
Gov. Josh Shapiro

“I think we can be the clean energy capital of the United States, maybe even the world, with two hydrogen hubs coming to Pennsylvania, with the resources that I'm asking the legislature for to be able to invest in energy with the type of clean energy projects that we're working on right now that we hope can come online over the course of the next months and years,” Shapiro said. “So, there are real big opportunities for a clean energy economy.

“At the same time...I'm hopeful lawmakers were able to find common ground on important environmental legislation, like updating our [Alternative Energy Portfolio Standards Act] standards to have more clean energy, more incentives on clean energy projects here in Pennsylvania. There's a lot we need to do, but our economic development plan would help really create a real foothold here for a clean energy economy.”

Cecilia "Ce-Ce" Gerlach, Allentown City Council candidate
Ce-Ce Gerlach
Cecilia "Ce-Ce" Gerlach, a member of Allentown City Council

‘A region on the rise’

Shapiro in January announced the 10-year economic development strategy during a visit to Bethlehem Township’s OraSure Technologies, a health sciences company.

“This is a region on the rise, and it is all because you all have put together a plan here in the Lehigh Valley and you have consistently stayed true to it and executed every step of the way,” Shapiro said during the visit.

The plan, filling more than 40 pages and the first of its kind in nearly two decades, outlines more than a dozen new and expanded policies to ease site construction, fund business development, speed the regulatory and approval process, spur innovation and attract employers while supporting communities and workers.

It centers five industries — agriculture, energy, life sciences, manufacturing and technology — and prioritizes how the commonwealth can better compete with other states to attract businesses.

“If we are going to be competitive in attracting new businesses and helping Pennsylvania businesses grow, then we need to invest in economic development,” Shapiro said. “Over the last five years, Ohio, New York, and New Jersey all committed far more resources to economic development than Pennsylvania.

The Lehigh Valley is noted in the report seven times.

While the Valley is highlighted as one of the commonwealth’s growing regions, the report also spotlights industries present here, including: livestock and poultry production and processing; animal food manufacturing; snack food, beverage and confectionery product manufacturing; pipeline transportation; petroleum and coal product manufacturing; and electrical equipment manufacturing.

“Governor Shapiro’s new economic strategy for Pennsylvania is a smart and practical approach to economic growth that is focused on helping to create jobs and opportunity in the 21st Century,” said Don Cunningham, president and CEO of the Lehigh Valley Economic Development Corporation, in a news release. “It’s long overdue for the state to have a comprehensive and strategic approach that will help all the regions of Pennsylvania thrive and prosper in a competitive world."

Shapiro’s proposed 2024-25 budget, announced earlier this month, shows $600 million allocated for the state Department of Community and Economic Development to implement the plan.

That total includes several investments, including $500 million in PA SITES funding to bring in more commercial and industrial sites; $25 million for the Main Street Matters program to support small businesses and commercial corridors; $20 million to support large-scale innovation; and $3.5 million to create and launch the Pennsylvania Regional Economic Competitiveness Challenge.

The latter aims to “incentivize regional growth, build vibrant and resilient regions and support communities by investing in the development of comprehensive strategies to propel entire regions forward,” according to a news release outlining the budget.

‘The plan addresses climate change only twice’

Economic development policy is environmental policy, advocates argued in the letter.

Shapiro’s plan doesn’t provide an equitable approach to a transition to renewable energy, according to the letter, and excludes key stakeholders, like the Department of Environmental Protection, the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources and the DEP’s Office of Environmental Justice, as well as “community-focused and sustainable business trade organizations.”

“We maintain that if the plan is designed to benefit communities, then the inclusion of vital state agencies and organizations focused on sustainability is necessary to support the goal of equity,” according to the letter. “It is clear that the development of this plan did not include meaningful engagement with environmental justice communities because the priorities will continue to perpetuate environmental injustices.”

The plan also falls short of growing the commonwealth’s renewable energy industry, continuing to center fossil fuels, the letter argues. And it said the proposal also doesn’t “provide a roadmap” for how economic development interacts with the state’s climate goals.

“Furthermore, it is bewildering that the plan addresses climate change only twice, and even then only indirectly: (1) within the context of building a blue hydrogen industry relying on fracked gas; and (2) within the context of vaguely building electric transmission infrastructure, seemingly to bring renewable energy resources into the state (though no plan is presented for actually developing and deploying them in-state),” according to the letter. “Even then, these strategies are supported only by another vague reference to federal funding.”

Other signers included PennFuture, Conservation Voters of Pennsylvania, Make the Road Pennsylvania, Physicians for Social Responsibility Pennsylvania, Sierra Club Pennsylvania and many more.

Asked for her reaction to being one of only two signers from the Valley, Gerlach said, “I'm used to being one of only a couple.”

“I know that sometimes in politics, you have to preserve relationships, and you have to make decisions based on that,” she said. “I tend to just not do that. If I agree with something, I agree with it. And sometimes that means you have to stand alone, or, in this case, with an organization.

“And in this case, I happen to agree with what these organizations are saying, so I’m definitely happy to put my name to it.”

The plan might mention the Valley, but it doesn’t address how manufacturing and other industries contribute to poor health outcomes for residents, officials said. In September, Allentown was named asthma capital of the U.S. by the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America.

“I do think just overall, addressing environmental concerns would lead the way to addressing very specific Allentown issues, such as the high rates of asthma,” Gerlach said. “I think [the plan] could do a better job of really addressing environmental justice issues, and really highlighting the role that the Lehigh Valley plays in the commonwealth.”