Why do citizens protect Delaware commercial developments?

Date Published: 
April 4, 2014

Each week, it seems some commercial project in Delaware is protested by citizens. Examples: the STAR Campus IT Center in Newark; the Allen Harim chicken plant in Millsboro; Metachem and PBF Energy in Delaware City. Why this passionate opposition to almost all major projects — no matter how seemingly clean, stringently regulated and economically beneficial? Is it just more NYMBYism (Not-In-My-Backyard)?

It would seem after 40 years since the first “Earth Day” that environmental issues should be less, not more, contentious. Federal and state agencies have refined their permitting, monitoring and enforcement processes and promulgated evermore regulations. Also, environmental science has progressed both in terms of detection, as well as new treatment technologies. Administrative procedures have strengthened the requirement of citizen input —broad publication, mandated comment periods and public hearings. Yet citizen resistance has stiffened. It is not only angry but organized, sustained and scientifically substantive. Why?

Three factors help explain it —the nature of today’s citizenry, the limits of our modern environmental science and the legacy of regulatory inadequacies.

First, citizens are now better educated on the environment and health. Many have the same advanced professional degrees as the staffs in the regulatory agencies — chemists, hydrologists, engineers, etc. Those retirees may have many years more experience. They understand the scientific issues, ask insightful questions, research the details, foresee results and propose alternatives. In short, educated citizens are no longer dependent on the regulators as experts.

Second, we no longer believe in our ability to understand, much less master, the tenacious forces of complex nature. Our science is far more limited than we expected it would be by now. We can detect more pollution, but our treatment modes are unable to return things to an acceptable state — much less as they were before development.

Nor do we know what we should. For example, only a handful of the 70,000 chemicals in commercial use have been tested for human health effects. And worse, because many chemicals are persistent in the environment, the risk is long-term — such as decades! In short, the pollution we cause is not as tractable to our science as once hoped.

Perhaps the main reason for citizen resistance is their perception that environmental regulation has been inadequate, if not a failure. Our regulators have not done what we trusted they would. The early promises of “clean-up” were reworded down to “mitigate,” meaning to make things not as bad as they could be. But if clean-up is not possible, then new pollution may be added to old pollution, making for “compound pollution.”

Gone is the trust in “dilution is the solution to pollution. The “build up of toxic chemicals” is a major threat to our society (Jared Diamond in the book “Collapse”). Conclusion: We cannot save ourselves by undoing the consequences of our past environmental mistakes.

There are many instances of these past regulatory limitations, if not failures.

In Millsboro, Del., it is now estimated that chromium (a heavy metal) from the NCR (National Cash Register) Superfund site, will take more than the 25 years predicted to fully dissipate.

At the Wilmington Rail Yard, the 111-year-old locomotive repair site is massively tainted by PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyl). The EPA classes PCB as a probable carcinogen. It is also considered the largest chronic source of PCB runoff to the Delaware River.

Except for some partial remedies, the state has failed to detect, prevent and control, much less clean up, the toxic runoff since their first investigations in 1981 — over 30 years ago! Pollution “targets” were tightened but apparently not much of the pollution itself reduced. Only now, with Amtrak’s interest in re-using the site, are state and federal regulators “talking about” doing more.

In Millsboro, at the Pinnacle/Vlasic facilities, the DEN (Delaware Environmental Navigator) database appears to show only one inspection each year over 35-plus years, excepting the NPDES permit. One site inspection per year at a site regulated by five DNREC programs and permits. And residents have now found evidence of pollutants that have migrated off-site, possibly into their shallow drinking-water wells.

In Delaware City, Metachem, (a.k.a. Standard Chlorine) was listed as an EPA Superfund site in 1987 after spills in 1981 and 1986. Although partially remediated, the site has been found to be four times more polluted than first thought. The agency is now in the process of studying other disposal/treatment methods, while the costs are at $100 million with no end in sight.

Regulators admit, after two dozen years of study and government controls, they don’t know how to locate, measure, contain or clean up all of the remaining toxic contamination.

The best national example is Love Canal in Niagara Falls, N.Y. One of the first EPA Superfund sites in the 1970s, it required two decades and $350 million to “remediate.” Success was announced in September 2004. The public thought it was cleaned up, or at least no longer a worry, but recently homeowners living nearby have filed suit, claiming they are being seriously sickened by toxic chemicals oozing from the ground — almost 25 years later.

Now that these better-educated citizens no longer believe that modern science can sufficiently manage nature and now that they have lost faith in the regulatory agencies, they have decided they must take a more active role in protecting themselves — much like a responsible patient working as a partner with their doctor to preserve and regain their health.

Citizens now want to be involved in the early planning stages of projects, proactively, understanding correctly that it is easier at that time to make beneficial changes than later, during the more formal permitting processes.

Citizens now realize that maximum effort must be put into prevention, knowing that mitigation has proved unsatisfactory.

Some citizen groups are abandoning the old “all-or-nothing,” “stop-it-all” definition of winning in favor of gaining meaningful concessions and adjustments in the project.

Citizens now want involvement in the monitoring phase of projects, after permitting. This has taken a number of forms: the placing and reading of remote air sampling devices at PBF Energy refinery in Delaware City, taking surface water samples at point sources and private water well sampling.

Citizens are acting independently when government does not. The Protecting Our Indian River Group (POIR) in Millsboro has sampled scores of local, private, shallow drinking-water wells near the Pinnacle/Vlasic plant, and, at their own expense, have had them analyzed by a private, certified laboratory to insure credibility.

Citizens now expect better reporting and feedback from the regulatory agencies during the monitoring and enforcement phases. At present, citizen complaints are only reported if violations are found or reported in summaries. Citizens never know if “their” complaint has been addressed or know the number (and pattern, if any) of complaints against a permitted facility. As well, they want clear explanations of on-site testing results.

Citizens are now looking for appointment to advisory and appeal boards, which appear to be controlled by the regulators, the regulated industry and prevailing political administration.

The regulators’ response?

They appear to still view citizen protesters as NIMBYs, emotional and unscientific. Some act as if the regulatory process (and they themselves), although imperfect, provide the best if not only safeguards for human health and the environment. They do not yet see that citizens can be partners, working with them, making positive contributions in all phases of regulation. Eliciting public input but not responding with even marginal changes, may leave a residue of resentment — to surface again like buried toxic waste when an embittered electorate goes to the polls.

Ken Currie is retired from 40 years with the State of Pennsylvania, most of that with the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) in Harrisburg, Pa. He currently lives in Dagsboro.