첥Ƶ

Skip to content

SUBSCRIBER ONLY

Local 첥Ƶ |
Dueling lawsuits: Here’s the latest on the Bethlehem Landfill expansion plans

A garbage truck travels along a roadside at Bethlehem Landfill in Lower Saucon Township. (Rick Kintzel/첥Ƶ file photo)
The Bethlehem Landfill. (Rick Kintzel/첥Ƶ)
Author
PUBLISHED: | UPDATED:

Bethlehem Landfill has filed a lawsuit against Lower Saucon Township, Township Council and three Democrats who won election last year after campaigning in large part on opposing the landfill’s expansion.

The landfill alleges the three council members and council solicitor violated the state’s open meetings law in trying to change previous decisions regarding the landfill.

It’s just one of several twists in the saga of Bethlehem Landfill’s effort to significantly expand its footprint, which was first made public in late 2022.

The lawsuit, filed last month in Northampton County Court, names the township, council, Democratic council members Priscilla deLeon, Laura Ray and Victoria Opthof-Cordaro, and council solicitor Steven Goudsouzian, who was appointed this year.

The complaint filed by landfill attorney Maryanne Starr Garber says the defendants took action in secret without voting in public. It also accuses the defendants of reversing the township’s position in another lawsuit regarding the landfill by opponents seeking to prevent the expansion.

“The Township is a defendant in the Declaratory Judgment Litigation, but has now, with a secret vote, taken the same position as the plaintiffs in the Declaratory Judgment Litigation,” according to the lawsuit. “Defendants attempted to cure their Sunshine Act violation by ratifying their illegal vote at a subsequent public meeting, but in doing so, they again violated the Sunshine Act by failing to place the ratification vote on the meeting agenda prior to the meeting.” That failure, the lawsuit alleges, deprived Bethlehem Landfill and the public notice that the vote would take place.

The lawsuit also says Opthof-Cordaro has “impermissible conflicts of interest” that disqualify her from voting on the expansion. The conflicts, the complaint alleges, include acting as a legal representative to expansion opponents and that her parents, Lawrence and Margaret Opthof, who live near the landfill, would see their property value decrease by an expansion. In addition, the lawsuit accuses Goudsouzian of making legal filings without council authorization in violation of Lower Saucon ordinances.

The landfill, which is owned by Waste Connections of The Woodlands, Texas, seeks more than $50,000 in engineering fees and property acquisitions, along with awarding legal costs and “any such other relief.”

The Democratic council members either declined to comment or did not return telephone messages. Goudsouzian said, “In light of the current situation and the outstanding litigation, I don’t think a discussion would be appropriate at this time.”

Garber declined comment beyond what is in the 155-page complaint, which includes more than 120 pages of emails and other documents involving township officials.

The lawsuit does not name the two Republicans on council, Jason Banonis and Thomas Carocci. The pair have supported the expansion, and verbally sparred with Democrats and residents They have argued for expansion, in part because the landfill pays sizable taxes to the municipality and Saucon Valley School District. It has been estimated that Lower Saucon derives about 25% of its tax revenue from the landfill.

The allegations of secret decisions in the lawsuit echo Banonis and Carocci’s opposition to hiring Goudsouzian and the solicitor he replaced this year, Mark L. Freed, in part because they said the decisions were made secretly by deLeon, Ray and Opthof-Cordaro. DeLeon, who was the lone Democrat on the previous council, has insisted informal discussions were done properly during the transition period before the other two Democrats took office as the new council was preparing for staff changes in January.

Meanwhile, Northampton County Court Judge Abraham P. Kassis is expected to hold a hearing June 13 on a lawsuit filed by a Lower Saucon residents group and other parties against the landfill and township over 1994 conservation easements Township Council had extinguished, with much of the conserved land considered part of the company’s plan for expansion. 

Expansion of the landfill in Lower Saucon is on hold until various legal challenges are settled in court, under an agreement the sides reached Tuesday. (Rick Kintzel/첥Ƶ)
Bethlehem Landfill’s expansion in Lower Saucon Township has been opposed by township residents. (Rick Kintzel/첥Ƶ)

The previous Township Council, which had a 4-1 majority that supported the landfill expansion, ended the easements in August, according to , which has been fighting the expansion since the beginning. The hearing before Kassis will be about restoring and enforcing the easements.

Andrea Wittchen, a spokesperson for the group, said its members want to see the easements kept, as they protect the scenic and historical value of the area. Wittchen was not sure the exact acreage the easements encompassed, but she said it is part of the 275 acres the landfill initially sought for expansion, which at the time would have doubled the waste site’s area.

More recently, Bethlehem Landfill amended the expansion to 86 acres of new dumping area plus another 27 acres of land where trash disposal previously was permitted at the landfill off Applebutter Road.

“This battle is not just about a piece of land but about standing up for the environment and community rights,” said Wittchen, a resident who blogs about the township on the site Saucon Shenanigans.

The other parties behind the lawsuit include Bethlehem Township, St. Luke’s University Health Network and Delaware & Lehigh National Heritage Corridor.

Kassis ruled last year against Lower Saucon’s efforts to enforce its rezoning of the tract for landfill development.

Separately, the landfill has been cited twice in recent months by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection for violations.

A February letter from the DEP highlighted odor investigations conducted in January. It notified landfill operators of violations of solid waste management and air pollution laws, and required a proposed plan and schedule to address the problems.

In May, DEP issued a notice of violation regarding waste Bethlehem Landfill improperly compacted and covered, according to Garber. DEP did not comment on the violations.

Garber provided electronic copies of letters the company sent to DEP on how it is addressing the violations.

The landfill was owned by Bethlehem when it opened in 1941. It sits along the northern edge of Lower Saucon, not far from the city’s sewage-treatment plant. It became privately acquired in the 1990s, eventually becoming part of Waste Connections.

Morning 첥Ƶ reporter Anthony Salamone can be reached at asalamone@mcall.com.

More in Local 첥Ƶ