Delaware House approves changes to Coastal Zone Act

The refinery in Delaware City is one of 14 locations approved for industrial use under the original Coastal Zone Act. (File/WHYY)

The refinery in Delaware City is one of 14 locations approved for industrial use under the original Coastal Zone Act. (File/WHYY)

Legislation that aims to revamp the Coastal Zone Act and make way for the repurposing of abandoned industrial sites in an attempt to make Delaware more business-friendly has moved forward in the General Assembly. 

The legislation, sponsored by State Rep. Ed Osienski, D-Newark, and State Sen. Bryan Townsend, D-Newark, passed with a 34-7 vote in the House Tuesday.  

“It sends a clear message. My colleagues understand the importance of the environment here in Delaware, but still, I think they realized we addressed the environmental concerns while balancing economic development opportunities,” Osienski said. “I think that’s why the vote turned out so favorable.”

The legislation, supported by Gov. John Carney, D-Delaware, would create a permitting process for the redevelopment of 14 industrial sites, including those that are abandoned or contaminated.

The bill also would allow new bulk product transfer operations at sites that had piers before 1971, when former Delaware Governor Russ Peterson signed the CZA into law in 1971. 

The legislation still places restrictions on some heavy industry uses that didn’t exist in 1971, such as oil refineries, steel mills and liquefied natural gas terminals.

The CZA, which was created to protect the Delaware Bay and the state’s shoreline from heavy industrial development, currently prohibits transferring bulk goods by ship, and also puts restrictions on repurposing abandoned property. Currently an abandoned site can only be repurposed for its previous use.

There are currently three abandoned industrial sites in Delaware through the Coastal Zone Act, and two that are not in operation but are set to be restored—all in New Castle County. 

Supporters of the bill say current CZA rules are too restricting on businesses and prevent new businesses from locating to Delaware. They say the bill will create new jobs and boost the economy.

However, environmentalists have rallied against the bill, arguing it puts the coastal zone at risk for contamination, and say an increase of bulk product transfer creates the risk of hazardous spills. They also say there hasn’t been enough public input on the bill.

Representatives approved several amendments introduced by Osienski to address various concerns. One of these amendments states that any product transported ship to shore must be used at the facility that’s applied for the permit, or other facilities within the coastal zone. Anything exported off the Delaware coast, also must come from within the coastal zone.

Kenneth Kristl of the Environmental & Natural Resources Law Clinic at Widener University Delaware Law School testified that the language of the bill is ambiguous, allowing for bulk product transfer beyond its intended limits.

Osienski said he doesn’t agree the intent of the bill isn’t clear.

Representatives also passed an amendment that requires DNREC to report any environmental effects, while the Delaware Economic Development Office would be required to report the economic impact.

State Rep. John Kowalko, D-Newark, said he believes industries would still pollute the atmosphere.

But Osienski said the several regulations within the bill, including a requirement facilities offset any pollution it emits, prevents those concerns, and also creates jobs with the need for equipment that reduces emissions.

“I do think the industries have made major improvements compared to what used to be here and what damaged they had done,” he said.

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