Delaware groups fighting proposed changes to Coastal Zone Act

 (Photo courtesy of Amy Roe)

(Photo courtesy of Amy Roe)

More than two dozen organizations have signed a letter to Delaware state lawmakers calling for House Bill 190 to be tabled and withdrawn.

Introduced in May, the bill proposed changes to Delaware’s Coastal Zone Act (CZA). The bill establishes a permitting process that would allow new heavy industry to repurpose 14 underutilized or abandoned brownfields that were in use pre-CZA. The bill would also allow new bulk product transfer operations at a limited number of sites, which the CZA currently forbids. 

Championed by former Governor Russ Peterson, the CZA was enacted in 1971 to protect Delaware’s coastline from heavy industry. Fourteen sites were grandfathered in because heavy industry existed there before the act was signed into law. The law became a template for federal environmental protection regulations in the ’70s and ’80s. 

The Delaware Audubon Society, League of Women Voters of Delaware and Delaware Alliance for Health Care are among the 25 groups opposed to HB 190. They warn the proposed changes increase the risk for hazardous spills and threats to public health and the ecosystem. 

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

The letter described HB 190 as “poorly written and dangerously ambiguous,” and said it “has the potential to reverse the positive strides Delaware has made to improve air quality, reduce air quality action days and protect public health.”

Most notably among those opposed to HB 190 is June Peterson, Russ Peterson’s widow. She penned her own letter expressing her disappointment. 

“If alive today, Russ would be adamantly opposed to making changes to the CZA to allow for new heavy industry and bulk product transfer,” she wrote. “I have no doubt that he would be in Dover lobbying for the sanctity of the Coastal Zone Act.” 

In closing, she urged the General Assembly to leave the Coastal Zone Act unchanged.

The groups also blasted the state’s Dept. of Natural Resources and Environmental Control’s ability to take on the new responsibilities of HB 190. The state agency would be responsible for issuing “conversion permits,” allowing prospective companies to operate an alternative additional heavy industry use at the site.

“We have little confidence that DNREC has the capacity to accept the new permitting responsibilities required by HB 190,” read the letter, citing EPA numbers reflecting the agency’s substantial permit backlog.

Prime sponsor, Rep. Ed Osienski, D-Newark, said he believes HB 190 strikes the right balance to protect Delaware’s coastline while setting up a framework to make the abandoned sites active job creators again.

Opponents argue Osienski’s view about prospective companies’ interest in the grandfathered sites is overly optimistic. Given the overall economic decline of heavy industry overall, they said it’s highly unlikely that changing the CZA will lead to any redevelopment. 

“Changing Delaware’s unique Coastal Zone Act and Russ Peterson’s legacy seems both unnecessary and unwise,” the letter read. 

HB 190 was assigned to the House Natural Resources Committee, where it is scheduled to be heard tomorrow afternoon.

You can read the letter in its entirety below.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal