Del. piggybacks on county law limiting construction landfills to 140 feet in height

The skyline of Wilmington looms in the background of the Waste Management Inc. landfill south of the city. (Cris Barrish/WHYY)

The skyline of Wilmington looms in the background of the Waste Management Inc. landfill south of the city. (Cris Barrish/WHYY)

A Delaware construction landfill’s bid last year to grow substantially in height triggered outcry by citizens and politicians. It also catalyzed a new law in New Castle County that capped the landfill’s height at 140 feet.

Now the state legislature has piggybacked on the county’s move by enacting similar law that’s binding for all of Delaware.

“This is the beginning of ending environmental injustice throughout the state, but basically my councilmanic district,” says New Castle County Councilman Jea Street, who represents the Minquadale area south of Wilmington.

Neighborhoods, heavy industry, businesses, wetlands, the Christina River and Interstate 95 border the Waste Management Inc. landfill that was targeted by residents, politicians and environmental advocates.

Street was echoed by others as Gov. John Carney signed the new state law Thursday. Carney said the legislation was a model example of activism leading to political action to protect the environment and Delawareans.

“The result is about as good as it gets,’’ Carney told WHYY.

Dustyn Thompson, of the Sierra Club of Delaware, said the dual actions by the county and state illustrate how a determined and organized public can defeat corporate interests — even one as big as a $50 billion conglomerate like Waste Management — to protect air and water quality for people and wildlife too.

“It means communities, when they organize together, can win,” Thompson said.

Dustyn Thompson of the Sierra Club of Delaware passage of the new county and state show how grassroots activism can translate into action and protect the environment. (Cris Barrish/WHYY)

“We went door to door and got people to come out. There was a whole grassroots effort of getting engagement from the bottom to be heard on the top.”

The new height limit only pertains to Delaware’s lone construction landfill and any that might open in the future. It doesn’t affect landfills for household trash and other residential garbage.

Outcry, action after landfill sought height increase

The controversy began in the spring of 2019 when Waste Management, which has a state permit to go to 130 feet sought regulatory approval to grow to 190 feet – a nearly 50 percent increase.

The facility off U.S. 13 has been operating for 35 years and handles up to 2,400 tons a day of lumber, asphalt, yard waste and other debris. That’s just under five million pounds daily – mostly from Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Maryland and New York, though some is from Delaware.

Officials said then the facility was nearing its 130-foot limit and would have to close within a year or two if it didn’t get permission to grow.

While officials from the state Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control conducted a review of the application, politicians and residents protested. Then the county passed a law limiting construction landfills to 140 feet.

Waste Management responded by suing the county over the new height cap, but the parties came to a compromise in November. The county’s new limit was unchanged, but officials agreed not to challenge the landfill’s revised bid with the state to grow to the new limit of 140 feet.

In January, the General Assembly passed a bill sponsored by area Rep. Frank Cooke and a handful of colleagues.

“This is a big step because of environmental injustices … going on for decades in our area,’’ Cooke said. “This is very important for my constituents. They fought with me. We were all together in this. This is a very, very big step in talking about a clean environment.”

State Rep. Franklin Cooke began fighting the landfill and it’s bid for a “vertical expansion” last year. (Cris Barrish/WHYY)

New Castle County Executive Matt Meyer agreed.

“These victories do not come often enough, and they certainly don’t happen without the relentless advocacy from those who believe we should protect the environment for all Delawareans,” Meyer said.

State regulators have still not ruled on Waste Management’s bid to grow to the new legal limit of 140 feet.

Waste Management spokesman John Hambrose said Thursday that the facility has less than a year before it reaches it current permitted limit of 130 feet and that it has, at most, two more years of operations after that, if regulators grant approval to grow to 140 feet,

“The landfill team continues to offer a critical environmental service and operate as a good neighbor,” Hambrose said.

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