The News Journal | by Scott Goss
Newark City Council has joined a growing list of groups calling on the General Assembly to table a bill that seeks to attract new heavy industrial to the state by undoing part of Delaware’s Coastal Zone Act.
While no formal vote was taken, four of Newark’s six council members on Monday directed the city’s top lobbyist to communicate their opposition to House Bill 190 – legislation that would amend the state’s landmark environmental protection law for the first time in 46 years.
“We have real concerns about how this bill could result in an increase in rail traffic loaded with hazardous materials passing through our city,” City Councilwoman Jennifer Wallace said. “Personally, I also have concerns about the process used to craft this bill and the lack of transparency when it comes to involving the public.”
Newark, which is not in the Coastal Zone, is believed to be the only Delaware municipality to take a stance on the bill. The measure could come up for a vote before the full state House of Representatives as early as Thursday.
“Rushed decisions are rarely good ones,” Newark Councilman Chris Hamilton said. “This is something that would impact Delaware for years to come and could have a number of unforeseen consequences. I don’t see the rush to pass it now.”
Introduced in May, House Bill 190 would create a new permitting process that proponents say would pave the way for redevelopment of 14 current and former heavy industrial sites along Delaware’s coastline, mostly in New Castle County.
Only four of those sites are currently prime for redevelopment. A fifth is earmarked for a future Port of Wilmington expansion, while nine others are currently in use.
The measure also would allow present and future occupants at nine of those sites to conduct bulk product transfer, a phrase that describes moving cargo such as crude oil or raw chemicals from ship to shore and vice versa. That activity is currently forbidden in other parts of the Coastal Zone.
Enacted in 1971 under former Gov. Russell Peterson, the Coastal Zone Act specifically sought to protect the Delaware Bay and the state’s shoreline by barring new heavy industries – specifically bulk product transfer – within a 2-mile-wide strip of land along the state’s 115-mile coast, both sides of the Chesapeake & Delaware Canal, and a ribbon around Delaware’s Inland Bays.
Supporters of the proposed Coastal Zone reforms include labor unions and major business interests, such as the Delaware State Chamber of Commerce. They argue the changes would help attract new companies willing to clean up some of the state’s most polluted property and open new factories that could employ hundreds.
Opponents, meanwhile, question the long-term sustainability of heavy industry. They argue that adding more factories would only increase the risk of pollution, rail accidents and hazardous material spills.
Potential incidents involving trains are of particular concern to Newark voters, city council members said.
Currently, crude oil and ethanol heading to the Delaware City Refinery – one of the 14 sites listed in the bill – passes through the college town by rail. Those trains head into Newark from Maryland before taking one of three routes to the refinery.
“They are loud, potentially dangerous and pass within yards of my constituents’ homes,” Wallace said. “My concern is that if we allow more heavy industry along the coast, we’re going to be significantly increasing the number of trains that serve those sites.”
State Rep. Ed Osienski, D-Newark, said the bill could have the opposite effect.
“It might reduce rail traffic because it will give these sites the option of bringing bulk products up the (Delaware) river instead,” he said. “It’s really too early to tell whether there will be an increase or a decrease.”
Newark City Council joins a coalition of more than two dozen environmental and civic groups opposed to the bill. Those groups signed an open letter to the General Assembly last week urging legislators to postpone action on the bill to allow for “an open public dialogue” on the proposal. June Peterson, widow of the former governor, also joined the chorus of opposition.
Those calls did little to convince legislators in the House Natural Resources Committee, which last week voted 9-1 to move the bill on to a vote before the full House.
Despite being far removed from the Coastal Zone, Newark is playing a crucial role in the debate.
State Rep. John Kowalko, D-Newark, has been an outspoken critic of the reform bill, casting the lone vote of dissent in last week’s committee hearing.
The measure’s two lead sponsors in the state House and Senate also hail from the greater Newark area: Osienski and fellow Democrat, state Sen. Bryan Townsend.