Panel OKs bill to open Coastal Zone to industry

DOVER — A bill that supporters say would drive economic activity while cleaning up polluted sites along the Delaware River has been sent to the full House chamber for a vote.

House Bill 190 would alter the 1971 Coastal Zone Act, which limits development and industrial activity along the coast.

The bill, which has bipartisan support, would create an exemption for 14 sites.

The House Natural Resources Committee voted 9-1 Wednesday to release the measure despite complaints from environmentalists and others that the proposal kowtows to big business.

Without the bill, Delaware Economic Development Office Intergovernmental Relations and Special Project Director Patty Cannon said, “Delaware’s closed for business.”

Ms. Cannon said DEDO has heard from 36 businesses that were interested in moving to Delaware but viewed the Coastal Zone Act as too much of an obstacle.

The act has helped keep the state’s natural resources fresh and allowed the tourism industry to thrive, but it has also restricted economic growth in other fields, the main sponsor of House Bill 190 said Wednesday.

“But what many feel is an unintentional consequence of the 1971 law is the rigid restrictions placed on businesses in the coastal zone, making it difficult to operate with flexibility to change products or processes efficiently when needed and to allow them the ability to adapt to changing markets, especially in today’s world,” said Rep. Ed Osienski, D-Newark. “I feel that is why many of these sites are no longer in operation and those thousands of good-paying jobs have gone away.”

Currently, all industries not operating when the Coastal Zone Act was passed 46 years ago are banned from the zone. The bill would allow the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control to issue permits for bulk transfer facilities at the 14 sites, although the original act stated that banning such facilities is “imperative.” Bulk product transfer consists of moving large quantities of a substance such as oil from a ship to a dock.

Certain industries, such as those using oil refineries, natural gas terminal and incinerators, would remain banned.

DNREC Secretary Shawn Garvin said in an email three of the 14 sites have been vacated, while two other locations are currently inactive.

The lone site below the Chesapeake & Delaware Canal is the Delaware Storage & Pipeline Co. facility in Little Creek.

Wednesday, more than 40 people spoke in the hourslong hearing, and while many praised the legislation, about an equal number protested its introduction.

Opponents argued the process is being rushed along, preventing environmentalists from weighing in on the proposal.

“If we can have in Delaware a stakeholder process and multiple town halls around the legalization of marijuana, about budget concerns and what we’re going to do about education but we cannot have one hour dedicated to Delaware’s foundational environmental legislation, I ask you, what is wrong? Where is the Delaware way in that dialogue?” Brenna Goggin, director of advocacy for the Delaware Nature Society, said. “We are not asking or opposing modernization to the Coastal Zone Act. We are simply asking for a public dialogue.”

If the bill passes, lawmakers will return later and make further changes to the Coastal Zone Act, she said — “death by a thousand cuts.”

But to supporters, the positives far outweigh the negatives.

“This bill will do many things for Delaware workers,” Mike Hackendorn, vice president of the Delaware Building and Construction Trades Council, said. “These sites will be cleaned up and they will provide jobs for Delawareans and also much needed revenue for the state of Delaware.”

Gov. John Carney made reforming the Coastal Zone Act a tenet of his campaign platform last year, and he said in a statement when the bill was introduced last month it would clean up brownfields while creating jobs.

Not everyone agrees with the lofty promises some believe the bill offers.

“In conversations before the hearing and in front of the podium, I keep hearing ‘Field of Dreams’ references: Build it and they will come,” Jeffrey Gordon said. “That’s great for a movie. It’s not great for potentially really messing up something that has worked very well.”

The measure is expected to be heard in the House soon.

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