COMMENTARY: Delaware’s environmental progress and pitfalls

On April 22, 1970, the United States celebrated the first Earth Day, a watershed moment in the environmental movement. In the 46 years since, there have been many noteworthy accomplishments both nationally and at the state level. This article reviews Delaware’s environmental record, including achievements, along with continuing challenges.

Due to [the state’s] location and geography, Delaware’s waterways are an important resource. There have been a number of environmental developments in the fight against water pollution.

The 1972 Clean Water Act mandated state regulations to ensure safe drinking water. Although the First State does not face a Flint, Michigan-like situation, it is estimated that creeks supplying almost 70 percent of northern Delaware’s drinking water contain excessive levels of toxins. The state Department of Natural Resources [and Environmental Control] and other groups have monitored levels of bacteria and formulated policies to reduce fertilizer runoff, two of the leading pollutants in drinking water.

Dr. Samuel B. Hoff

Dr. Samuel B. Hoff

As recently as 2012, the Delaware River was ranked as the fifth-most-polluted river in the country by a New Jersey-based environmental group. Delaware officials have long been aware of the problem and have taken a number of actions. First, the 1971 Coastal Zone Act limits heavy industrial and manufacturing businesses in vulnerable areas, including the rivers. Second, the Delaware River Basin Commission aligned with others to track and limit PCB-based pollution.

Recently, Delaware has seen a number of problems with recreational waters, from high levels of pollutants which prevent swimming to invasive species which impact fishing. The state is doing its best to adhere to federal standards emanating from the 2000 Beaches Environmental Assessment and Coastal Health Act, confronting both human and natural causes.

In the area of air quality, Delaware has sought to improve its recent record, which had all three counties reporting levels of air pollution in excess of federal standards.

Though some compounds are blown into the area from elsewhere, other pollutants come from industry, auto emissions, and chemical solvents, among other sources. The good news is that ozone levels have been declining over the last few years as regulations and prevention programs have reduced emissions and eliminated most residential open burning.

Like other states, Delaware has tackled land pollution with a series of programs and activities. Among these is an increase in fines for polluters, encouraging recycling programs and composting, and community clean-up activities such as the Adopt-a-Highway or Adopt-a-Beach. Further, the Delaware General Assembly has strengthened rules for transporting and storing infectious and hazardous waste.

There are still challenges facing Delaware on the environmental front due to the state’s large farming industry and to the number of visitors coming to the state each year.

However, with responsible public officials, concerned citizens, and committed activist groups working on the same page, these and other problems can be successfully overcome.

Granted, it takes constant attention and oversight, recognizing that Earth Day may be commemorated annually but the fight to end pollution in all its forms is a 24/7/365 endeavor.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Dr. Samuel B. Hoff is George Washington Distinguished Professor of History and Political Science and Law Studies director at Delaware State University. In 1980, he worked for the Clean Water Action Project in Washington, D.C.

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