Commentary: Plastics bill would cause undue harm in Delaware

Probably no member of the Delaware legislature is a more dedicated stooge of industrial polluters than Rep. Debra Heffernan.

So, by the perverse logic of the General Assembly, it makes sense that House Speaker Pete Schwartzkopf would have made her chairwoman of the House Natural Resources Committee, the better to attack natural resources from the inside. Herffernan represents District 6, which has a lot of pollution problems and contaminated sites. She is also co-chair of the Capital Improvement (Bond Bill) Committee, one of the key “money” committees, giving her leverage over her colleagues.

Heffernan also has a Master’s degree in “environmental toxicology.” This probably leads some of her more gullible legislative colleagues to think she knows what she’s talking about. In fact, as far as I can tell, she’s just an industrial lobbyist with a technical credential.

The American Chemistry Council, formerly and more honestly known as the Chemical Manufacturers Association, is the key lobby group, though far from the only one, for the chemical/plastics industry. It is well-funded, and clever and sophisticated in its messaging. ACCs “reported” lobbying expenses in 2018 were about $9 million. ACC’s objectives are clear cut: Increase sales of plastics, prevent regulation of plastics, and obstruct recycling of plastics.

Plastics manufacturers do not want sales of new plastics to have to compete with recycled materials. So, ACC relentlessly promotes incinerator and objects to more than token recycling.

On the other hand, a lot of recent reporting highlights the global ecological crisis being created by careless and excessive use of plastics. The industry is under pressure and is pushing back hard, collectively kneeling down before statues of trump, and winding up stooges like Heffernan.

So, in House Bill 184 we have the evil combination of Debra Heffernan and the American Chemistry Council. There is no question about what’s intended.

The official synopsis:

“In order to promote the development of pyrolysis and gasification facilities in Delaware and realize environmental benefits, this Act creates a classification of post-use polymers and other recoverable feedstocks and acknowledges their distinction from solid waste.”

Translated into reality:

“Cause more experimental, dangerously polluting facilities to be built in Delaware, probably in ‘environmental justice’ communities, and escape regulation by redefining plastic waste disposal as ‘manufacturing’”.

Unstated but also very important: Drill a giant hole in Delaware’s laws against incineration. Laws which have (mostly) protected Delawareans from such facilities for many years. These laws are, along with the Coastal Zone Act, among the few environmental laws that Delaware can (or could) be proud of. The General Assembly and Gov. Carney gutted the Coastal Zone Act a couple of years ago and now they seem to be after the incineration laws.

A committee hearing was held on HB 184 on June 12 and this is the report:

“The committee found that an amendment is necessary to clarify language in the bill to eliminate potential loopholes and unwanted consequences that could result from the present version of the bill. It also found that this process is a new and bold strategy the state can use to eliminate plastic pollution in the state.”

This is the sum total of the report! We understand DNREC Secretary Shawn Garvin was present and testified in favor of HB 184. We understand his staff has been conniving with the promoters over the wording of the bill. We understand that Rep. John Kowalko, a Natural Resources committee member, strongly opposed the bill. But neither Heffernan, nor her legislative assistant, nor anybody in DNREC, has been willing to provide more information.

Some obvious questions include:

Just what is “this process?”

What company is promoting it and what is the track record?

Where is it successfully demonstrated elsewhere, commercially and technically?

Where is the detailed process description, including “flowsheets” with real data?

Where would the “feedstocks” come from? In what amounts?

What would be the direct and indirect emissions, including “point source” (smokestack) emissions and “fugitive” emissions (leaks, traffic, dust, etc.)

What would happen, and how quickly, if the experimental facility didn’t perform as promised?

Would not increased recycling and reduced USE of plastics be more rational?

The big question: Why should Delawareans, yet again, have their health and quality of life experimented on at the behest of industrial interests?

The good news is that Rep. Kowalko has filed three amendments that, if adopted, would go a long way towards abating the harm done by HB 184 — which preferably should not be passed at all.

House Amendment 2 (synopsis):

“This Amendment requires that a permit for a gasification facility or a pyrolysis factory may be approved only if the specific technology the facility will use has 5 years of demonstrated economic and technical viability in another U.S. jurisdiction.”

House Amendment 3 (synopsis):

“This Amendment adds gasification and pyrolysis facilities to the types of structures or facilities for which the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control and a county, municipality, or other governmental entity may not issue a permit unless it is located in an area zoned for heavy industry and is at least 3 miles from every point on the property boundary line of a residence, residential community, and church, school, park, and hospital.”

House Amendment 4 (synopsis):

“This Amendment prohibits the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control from granting a permit to an incinerator, gasification facility, or pyrolysis facility if the incinerator, gasification facility, or pyrolysis facility accepts any material not originating or collected within this State or within 50 miles of the borders of this State.”

HB 184 should not be passed at all, but these three amendments would go a long way towards protecting Delawareans from bad consequences.

Alan Muller is executive director of Green Delaware.

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