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Reading activists want city protection from environmental toxins

Reading Eagle - 10/4/2022

Oct. 4—A group of Reading citizens want to change the city charter to help protect residents from environmental pollution.

City Council held a hearing Monday on a ballot initiative that would recognize the right of residents to be free from toxic trespass, and establish a policy for citizen-managed oversight and enforcement procedures to protect that right.

The proposed amendment would ensure public oversight through an environmental justice committee made up of local residents.

Organizers of the movement, We the People of Reading, want the referendum on the ballot in spring.

"This toxic trespass commission should be a nonnegotiable part of the city," said the Rev. Evelyn Morrison, a leader of the group calling for action.

In her testimony before council, Morrison said the toxic footprints of area manufacturers that used radioactive ores were left behind in areas throughout the city.

She said that pollution was uncontrolled before the Environmental Protection Agency was established by President Richard M. Nixon in 1970.

"Debris and the toxic residues were poured into the ground, poured into the river," Morrison said. "The air, the water and the soil became contaminated."

Laws later allowed the environmental cleanup and redevelopment of former industrial sites in northwest Reading and elsewhere, Morrison said, noting the cleanups were not always thorough or sufficient as believed.

Lead, asbestos and other contaminants, she said, have been linked to cancer and other illnesses.

Community activists are calling for the city to take responsibility and create a commission to oversee a process and protocol to address these issues.

The purpose of Monday's hearing was to allow council to hear from the petitioners as to why the proposed referendum and the number of signatures proposed meet the requirements for placement on the ballot, Council Solicitor Michael J. Gombar Jr. said.

The petitioners obtained 1,737 valid signatures, 263 short of the required 2,000.

Proponents of the charter amendment began circulating a petition for the amendment more than a year ago, during the COVID-19 pandemic, We the People's Cesar Cepeda told council.

Due to the challenging conditions and health and safety protocols, he said, they fell short of the required number of signatures.

When council declared the petition insufficient, he said, We the People of Reading asked Berks County Court to consider the request to place the question of the amendment on the ballot.

The court vacated the decision and sent the matter back to council for further review..

Cepeda requested council refer the amendment question to the county board of elections for placement on the ballot of the next available election, which would be in spring.

Council will render a decision on the matter at its regular council meetings on Oct. 10 or 24.


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