The Fine Line Between Stakeholders and Opponents

Robert Kennedy, a pragmatic statesman and visionary, once told a crowd at the University of Pennsylvania, “One-fifth of the people are against everything all the time." Fifty years later, these words, originally laced with humor, prophetically describe a growing problem facing the Commonwealth: A small, but vocal group of environmental activists who oppose any and all real economic development in the state based on their extreme agenda of a carbon-free economy. 

Over the years, concerned citizens in Pennsylvania have used stakeholder processes, including public comment and permitting decision making, to ensure industry developed safely. However, a few groups, like the Delaware Riverkeeper Network and the Clean Air Council, have hijacked the process as a tool to slow or delay projects in order to prevent them from occurring outright. 

Three recent projects come to mind that highlight the problem: dredging the Delaware River, the Philadelphia International Airport expansion, and the Delaware River Pond Eddy Bridge.

About a year ago, a group of bipartisan stakeholders, including elected officials, business owners, state and national agencies, as well as the Army Corps of Engineers, came together to support the deepening of a shipping channel on the Delaware River. The project had immense support throughout all levels of government, including Vice President Joe Biden noting that the region would lose its competitive edge without this development. Still, the Delaware Riverkeeper Network opposed the project, calling on their members to stand in unison against it. Fortunately, they failed.  Today, the Delaware River shipping channel now helps to support 135,000 area jobs.

In the early part of 2015, officials proposed an expansion to the Philadelphia International Airport, which was expected to bring nearly 4,500 construction jobs and 2,000 professional-service jobs. Airports are an essential driver of a region’s economic well-being, but the Delaware Riverkeeper staunchly opposed it. The group claims that it would be detrimental to fish habitats and bird migrations in the area, a claim which was determined by Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection to be unfounded.

The most interesting project the Riverkeeper decided to oppose was the Delaware River Pond Eddy bridge replacement plan. The Pond Eddy Bridge was built in 1904 for horse and carriages, and could no longer sustain ambulances, school busses, and fire trucks. The community proposed stabilizing and expanding the single-lane bridge, but the Riverkeeper objected to the project, calling it excessive. Because the community recognized what was important for public safety, the bridge was replaced.

We all know that human development impacts our environment, and it’s all of our jobs to keep that impact to a minimum. But to oppose development in Pennsylvania simply because there is any impact is to live in a fantasy world, where nothing happens, the economy stands still, and Pennsylvania moves backward. Our state has gone through an energy renaissance in recent years, helping to bolster our communities with jobs and revenue, increase access to energy, and establish a long-term industry that allows our sons and daughters to work and live right here in Pennsylvania. 

Extreme organizations such as the Delaware Riverkeeper are creating obstacles for the much needed energy infrastructure in the state. Projects such as deepening the Delaware River to support a new shipping channel, expanding the Philadelphia airport, or replacing a century-old bridge are not outlandish projects, rather the byproduct of a growing and prospering economy.  These are projects that received their due and full environmental reviews. 

It is vital that stakeholders are involved in decision-making for development projects in Pennsylvania.  But there must be a distinction between stakeholders and obstructionists.  Fighting against everything all of the time is, in fact, fighting for nothing at all.