Commentary: Watching the steady decline of Delaware

Green Delaware has often sought to hold up a mirror to Delaware. Do we understand what our state is and is not? Here’s a mirror held up by another organization, WalletHub.com.

Wilmington was rated in a recent survey of 182 U.S. cities as fifth from the bottom in the U.S. in “most conducive to family life.” (The state capital, Dover, was rated 37th worst.) The criteria used and their weighting are open to question, of course — the authors gave “sports fan friendliness” more weight than “air quality,” for example, but it’s something to think about. Wilmington is a great place for a kid to be murdered. Are we ashamed of this? What are we doing about it?

Of course it’s an over-simplification, but let’s divide our thinking about Delaware in three categories, natural resources (and how we treat them), human resources (people, and how we treat them) and cultural resources (people’s doings and artifacts, and how we treat and remember them).

I’ve written about the natural resources piece for a long time, as that tends to be the focus of “environmental” advocacy. Let’s pick one example: In 1971 a law was passed beginning with:

“It is hereby determined that the coastal areas of Delaware are the most critical areas for the future of the State in terms of the quality of life in the State. It is, therefore, the declared public policy of the State to control the location, extent and type of industrial development in Delaware’s coastal areas. In so doing, the State can better protect the natural environment of its bay and coastal areas and safeguard their use primarily for recreation and tourism.” This was in 1971.

The immediate impetus for this was a plan by Shell Oil to build another refinery in Delaware. Land had been purchased, survey monuments were in the ground. It was stopped, thanks to Gov. Russ Peterson and his allies. Wisdom and foresight prevailed at the time. (I have a memory of leafletting for Peterson as a teenager in 1968.)

In November, 2009, the existing Delaware refinery, in operation since 1956, was shut down, supposedly permanently. Environmental conditions immediately improved.

In October 2011, the refinery was restarted. In a back door deal with the new owners, Gov. Jack Markell, apparently handed them gifts of over $40 million from the taxpayers of Delaware, who were not consulted. As was to be expected, the refinery immediately commenced its patterns of pollution, explosions, and violations,which continue unabated in 2019.

The bigger picture, of course, is we are much more aware now than in 1971 of the need to burn less, not, more, oil and gas. We know Delaware is the lowest-lying state and is critically threatened by sea level rise driven by a warming earth. So for Delaware officials to run a scam to reopen a refinery seems hard to explain, even suicidal. Like Trump in the White House, it simply makes no sense and suggests some sort of collective moral and intellectual decline. Or perhaps nothing more than an inability to see more than a few inches into the future.

Sure, people need jobs, even very dangerous and unhealthy ones, and there are all sorts of political considerations. But, here is the Delaware Oath of Office for public officials, from the Delaware Constitution:

“I, (name), do proudly swear (or affirm) to carry out the responsibilities of the office of (name of office) to the best of my ability, freely acknowledging that the powers of this office flow from the people I am privileged to represent. I further swear (or affirm) always to place the public interests above any special or personal interests, and to respect the right of future generations to share the rich historic and natural heritage of Delaware. In doing so I will always uphold and defend the Constitutions of my Country and my State, so help me God.”

Apparently this oath meant something different in 1971 than it meant in 2011?

So what about human resources? (I do not mean to suggest that people should be regarded as “resources” to be exploited.) It is no secret that Delaware is very good to wealthy people and can be very cruel to the poor, and those who step out of line. From being the last slave state, to a recent history of low life expectancy, high infant mortality, high cancer rates, high rates of incarceration, de-facto segregation, many acute examples of “Environmental Injustice,” Wilmington as a “Murder Capital,” a questionable public education system … there is much not to be proud of — though some improvements have been seen in the last few years.

Suppose different values were to prevail? If it was considered that good living and learning conditions were a priority? That people should be able to enjoy their lives, not just endure them. This does not require speculation as there are operating examples, such as the “Nordic Model.” Delaware could do better if it wanted to.

The importance of cultural resources is harder to pin down. From a unit of the National Park Service:

“Cultural resources can be defined as physical evidence or place of past human activity: site, object, landscape, structure; or a site, structure, landscape, object or natural feature of significance to a group of people traditionally associated with it.” Feb 26, 2015

Delaware mostly seems to go out of its way to destroy cultural resources. Here’s an example:

At one time, driving south on Route 896 from Glasgow towards the C & D Canal, one could see an old right of way on either side of the road, heading west towards Frenchtown Landing and east toward New Castle.

Nothing remarkable about it, unless you knew it was the abandoned right of way of the New Castle & Frenchtown Railroad. This was one of the first railroads in North America, opened in 1832, originally hauled by horses and then by steam locomotives made by George Stephenson, the “Father of Railways.” It’s documented, somewhat, in the Historic American Engineering Record. It was also one of the first railroads to be abandoned, before the Civil War, and some remaining structures, are, or were, some of earliest remaining examples of railway civil engineering.

But if you are interested you had better look online, as most of the remains have been obliterated with no attempt at preservation. It could have been a trail, with some historical interpretation. But I suppose that would have required a little wisdom from New Castle County officials, and that doesn’t happen very often. Does this matter? At one time I would have been sure it did.

Alan Muller is executive director of Green Delaware, a community-based organization working on environment, public health, and democracy/open government issues.

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