Has Palmerton been shortchanged out of a $20 million settlement for damage to the environment?

A number of borough officials and business owners believe so, and let their thoughts be heard at a meeting of the Palmerton Area Chamber of Commerce earlier this week.

Dr. Kathleen Patnode, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Pennsylvania Field Office, explained the nature of the settlement reached last year between the Environmental Protection Agency and CBS Operations, Inc, as well as the decision-making process that determined how the funds are to be used.

Recently, government trustees have decided that more than 95-percent of the natural resource damage assessment funds are expected to be expended on projects well outside the Palmerton area.

Patnode gave a presentation on the Palmerton Zinc Pile Superfund Site Natural Resource Damage Assessment Draft Restoration Plan and Environmental Assessment.

As part of her dialogue, Patnode shared the context for the natural resource damaged assessment; summarized the natural resource injury assessment; outlined the restoration opinions analysis; described the preferred restoration alternatives; and reviewed the public process.

Patnode said that under Superfund site law, natural resource damage assessments are conducted by government officials designated to act as "trustees" to bring claims on behalf of the public for the restoration of natural resources injured due to hazardous substances. Those trustees include the National Park Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission, Department of Environmental Protection, Pennsylvania Game Commission, and Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, she said.

The goal, Patnode said, is to make the public whole for the hazardous substance-related loss of natural resources through restoration, replacement, or acquisition of the equivalent of injured resources.

Patnode stressed that natural resource damages are in addition to remedial actions. and that remedial actions are risk-based to protect human health and the environment from further unacceptable harm, such as to bind metals in soils and plants on the mountain; to stop metals from contaminating groundwater; and to prevent metals from entering the creek.

Natural resource damages for the Palmerton site are the restoration needed to compensate for the level and type of natural resources that would have existed if metals had not contaminated the mountain, groundwater and creek, Patnode said.

She said the keys in the NRDA process are to define the scope, evaluate the injury, use information to reach settlement with potentially responsible parties, and develop a restoration plan.

The settlement for natural resource damages was reached with the responsible parties on Oct. 27, 2009, by judicial consent decree, Patnode said.

That includes the transfer of about 1,300 acres of the "King Manor" property to PGC; the discharge of the $300,000 mortgage on the Lehigh Gap Nature Center; a nonprofit conservation and environmental education organization located in the Lehigh Gap; a cash payment of $9.875 million, that, based on the cost of potential restoration projects, would compensate for remaining losses; as well as full reimbursement of the trustees' damage assessment costs, she said.

The proposal, Patnode said, calls for the funds to be used for habitat acquisition/easement protection of the Cherry Valley National Wildlife Refuge; Lehigh River Headwaters and other areas on Kittatinny Ridge and the Lehigh River; a Lower Lehigh River Dam removal feasibility study; a Parryville access site for fishing on the Lehigh River; and restoration and enhancement of the Appalachian National Scenic Trail.

But, many residents in the Palmerton area believe that a greater percentage of the funds should be use on local environmental projects, said Peter Kern, chamber president.

"I think everybody understands the difference between remediation and replacement," Kern said. "People are concerned there will be little or no money in the local community."

Terry Costenbader, president of Palmerton Borough Council, was a bit more blunt in his approach.

"Let's cut to the chase; CBS is paying the penalty here for causing the damage," Costenbader said. "It sounds to me you people want to spend the money in other areas than where we're sitting."

Jim Christman, owner of Christman Realty, told Patnode the criteria "seems odd", and added that the real damage to the community "has been the stigma as a Superfund Site attached to it."

Patnode said that while she could empathize, a specific set of rules and regulations must be followed.

"I understand what you're saying and that there could be many civic products in Palmerton," Patnode said. "This law only basically allows us to restore natural resources."

Patnode said appropriate lands could include the Cherry Valley National Wildlife Refuge and the Upper Lehigh River area.

She said the public comment period was from June 15 to July 15; however, comments submitted after the deadline were accepted. Trustees will review all comments and develop a revised document and response to the comments, Patnode said.

Also, she said additional restoration projects for Trustee evaluation are being accepted. But, Patnode said potential projects won't be reviewed until the restoration plan is final; projects will be divided by alternative type and evaluated by the subcouncil responsible for that alternative; and the subcouncil recommendations must receive unanimous vote by the entire trustee council.

Patnode said the goal is to get the plan finalized this fall, at which point projects could be reviewed.

Dan Kunkle, director of the Lehigh Gap Nature Center, said the group is merely "following the law."

"I trust they are going to look at our proposals, and accept or reject them based on the criteria," Kunkle said. "I think the project is really working."