COMMENTARY: With Coastal Zone Act update, Delaware can strike a better balance

Delawareans are very fortunate to have miles of pristine coastline to enjoy. For having this cherished natural resource, we owe a great deal to the Coastal Zone Act, a 1971 law that regulates heavy industrial activities and manufacturing activities in Delaware’s Coastal Zone, a protected coastline running the length of the state.

As important as the CZA is, we must honor it and do more to fulfill its original intent of balancing environmental protection and economic growth. The CZA law largely has remained untouched for nearly a half-century. Think about what else has changed in the last 46 years: personal computers, cell phones, rooftop solar panels, internet access, hybrid vehicles, and other technological advances have been made. We as a society are much more aware of the impact our actions have on our environment.

Much also has changed since 1971 regarding how industries operate. Heavy industrial companies have many more tools at their disposal to reduce their impact on the environment. Manufacturing companies use more efficient and environmentally conscious processes to ensure they operate more cleanly and reduce the size of their environmental footprints.

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Edward Osienski

On the regulatory front, Delaware is much better equipped to balance the economic benefit these industries could bring while protecting our environment. In 1971, there was no Environmental Protection Agency, and Delaware’s DNREC had just come into existence. Since then, state and federal environmental regulations governing these heavy industrial sites — such as air and water permitting — have been strengthened, better protecting our environment from pollution.

At the same time, the Coastal Zone Act in its current form has unintentionally allowed several heavy-industry sites to become abandoned properties that remain polluted. And, Delaware has taken dramatic hits to its industrial and manufacturing blue-collar economy, leaving many Delaware workers and families in search of work opportunities that match their skill sets.

For those reasons, we are putting forth legislation that would establish a conversion permitting process for interested parties to potentially redevelop a limited number of abandoned heavy-industry sites for industrial use. These are existing brownfields that have been shut down and are sitting, polluted and unusable because of contamination. Together with sites already grandfathered under the CZA, in total 14 sites would be the only ones available for a conversion permit.

If converted from abandoned brownfields into active industries, these sites could employ hundreds, even thousands, of Delawareans, offering good-paying jobs that could become careers for many. The process of remediating and building up industry would mean more environmental cleaning and construction jobs. An active industry would contribute personal income taxes, corporate income taxes and property taxes to our local school districts once again. They also would use local utilities and could be an economic engine for the state.

Our legislation would only allow for the redevelopment of this limited number of specific sites concentrated mostly in northern New Castle County. It would in no way allow for Delaware’s pristine coastline to be developed for heavy industry use up and down the state. In short, it would maintain the goals and spirit of the CZA.

Under this bill, any industry that would want to develop a site would have to meet a very high threshold of planning, remediation, and regulatory control. A company would be making a serious, long-term investment in Delaware. An interested industry would need to scour the brownfield, following the Delaware Hazardous Substance Cleanup Act and removing pollution from the site. A new operator also would have to show that it has the financial backing and available funds to complete any future remedial action.

Under the bill, a company applying for a conversion permit would also have to submit a sea-level rise plan. Additionally, there would be restrictions on what types of industries could operate along the coast. Refineries processing crude oil, basic cellulose pulp paper mills, and incinerators would continue to be forbidden, as they have been since the CZA was enacted in 1971. Bulk product transfers would be allowed at nine sites, with certain limitations and only so long as they support industry at those sites or elsewhere in the Coastal Zone.

Bryan Townsend

This high threshold respects the overall goal of the CZA: protect our irreplaceable natural resources and treasured coastline and be environmentally conscious by cleaning up polluted brownfields, while also allowing economically viable, well-regulated sites that could create new, good-paying jobs for current and future generations.

We have met with stakeholders from all sides of this issue, and we will continue this thorough dialogue as we move through the legislative process. We realize our proposal will evoke strong opinions, and we know that this is a complex initiative that will require significant discussions in legislative hearings.

But if we do not take these steps, then these abandoned, polluted sites will simply sit for another generation, failing both the spirit of the CZA as well as our current and future workforce. We offer an environmentally sustainable, economically beneficial alternative to the status quo.

Ed Osienski is a Democrat serving the 24th District in the House of Representatives, including the Newark and Brookside areas. Bryan Townsend is a Democrat serving the 11th District in the Delaware State Senate, including the southern Newark and northern Bear areas.

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