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A Profile of Alan Muller of Port Penn: An Environmental Activist and Executive Director of Green Delaware

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illustration by Jacqui OakleyAlan Muller takes no prisoners.

For almost two decades, the executive director of Green Delaware has held public officials’ feet to the fire of his environmental zeal. At meetings, hearings and legislative sessions, in a calm voice, Muller presents meticulously researched arguments and asks uncomfortable questions that offer no compromise.

His wrath spares few of those in power. Here’s a sampling:

Of Gov. Jack Markell: “Supporting his candidacy was the biggest mistake of my career as an advocate. He governs as a right-winger and corporate stooge. His environmental policies amount to giving the developers and polluters whatever they want.”

Of U.S. Senator and former New Castle County Executive Chris Coons: “A total servant of corporate interests and big business who knows how to work liberal do-gooder types, so they think he’s great.”

Of New Castle County government in general: “I have zero respect for it. I regard it as a criminal organization.”

Of the State Chamber of Commerce: “Probably the biggest single foe of the environment in the state.”

Wilmington Mayor Jim Baker, the DuPont Co., other Delaware environmental groups and The News Journal—which Muller calls The “Stooge Journal” (except reporter Jeff Montgomery, whom he considers a friend)—also are on Muller’s hit list.

His scorched-earth style can elicit bitter backlash. Says John Taylor, senior vice president of the State Chamber of Commerce: “Alan Muller is great at name-calling but lousy on getting his facts right. Mr. Muller attacks anyone who doesn’t agree with him 100 percent. And his narrow, misguided and misanthropic vision is well-known to those in Delaware who truly care for the environment. In fact, the Delaware State Chamber of Commerce has been an active partner in bringing clean energy to Delaware. The latest example of this being the Bloom Energy decision to come to Newark.” While Taylor no doubt expresses what many would like to, other Muller targets chose a more circumspect response. Markell, who gets high marks from many enviros, would say only, “Alan Muller believes strongly in his causes and makes himself heard.” Chris Coons’ office declined to comment. Another Muller target, Debbie Heaton, of the Sierra Club and The Nature Conservancy, says merely that she does not have “happy memories” of working with him.
 

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The official response to Muller is often to ignore or avoid him. That’s understandable, according to John Flaherty, another well-known Delaware activist. “Power hates and marginalizes people who are right, like Alan, because they reveal that the powerful use their positions for themselves and for the interests they serve. And once someone has been banished to the margins, the powerful can rely on the conditioned habits of the public. After all, don’t we all know that anyone on the margins is, by definition, unacceptable?”

According to Muller and some of his supporters, he’s been mistreated and harassed over the years—especially by New Castle County government, which has cited him for many violations at his Port Penn home, a historic building he purchased for about $15,000 (supplemented by a state grant) with the agreement to upgrade it. Muller says the price of the house and its central location between Wilmington and Dover cancels out environmental considerations like the three nearby nuclear reactors, the Delaware City Refinery and other major polluters.

In 2001 Baker had him arrested for “graffiti” and “criminal mischief” after Muller posted warning signs on an open channel carrying raw sewage through a Brandywine Park picnic area. In 2005 he and John Kowalko, then director of the ACORN utility campaign, now a state representative, were ejected from Legislative Hall during a House Energy Committee hearing. When they weren’t allowed to speak, Muller and Kowalko tied gags to their mouths. That incensed then-Rep. Robert Valihura, chairman of the committee, who ordered Capitol Police to remove them.

Calling it “death by a thousand cuts,” Muller says “harassment in the past few years has been relentless.”

Meanwhile, he laments the “plantation mentality” that pervades the state—“the reluctance of people to say anything challenging or critical,” including the media and other environmental organizations. The latter, he says, have been bought off or bullied into submission by those in power. “Other states are less hostile,” he says.

As a result, the somewhat rumpled 61-year-old, nursing “aching feet and a creaky back,” may leave Delaware, perhaps for Minnesota, where his soul mate, Carol Overland, is an energy consultant and lawyer. He spends about half of each year working for environmental groups in several states, at fees exceeding the small income he takes from Green Delaware.

As the most prominent activist in the state’s recent past contemplates taking his leave, it seems an appropriate time to examine his legacy—and his motivation.

For someone so passionate about it, Muller came relatively late to the environmental movement. But the seed was planted early. He grew up in Welshire, a North Wilmington suburb, living with his parents and a brother, who was a year younger. His father, Joseph, was a DuPont manager.
 

 

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“I’m not saying my father was a bad guy,” Muller says, “but he reflected the values of the chemical industry at the time, and his proudest achievement was bollixing up an EPA effort to regulate sulfuric acid plants. He and other DuPonters went to Washington in the ’60s and testified that (regulation) was unreasonable, impossible and too expensive. As a kid, I thought about it and decided I kind of didn’t agree. I remember thinking the EPA could have gotten the technical details wrong, but it was hard to disagree with the concept of reducing pollution.”

(Of his relationship with his late parents, Muller says: “It had its ups and downs. I’d think my activism was part of it. They would have liked a picket-fence Republican son and grandkids.” Married once, briefly, Muller has no children.)

Fast-forward several years. Muller drops out of UD after his junior year (eventually earning a social sciences degree), goes on to several jobs, then finds himself working as a consultant for, ready? DuPont!

As a technical writer for the company’s engineering department, he says he worked with people who were involved in environmental cleanup and who also lobbied against stricter regulations. “I began to see how it worked from the inside. After several years of pumping out this rhetoric about ‘clean and green’ and don’t regulate us because we do the right things, when Reagan came in, all the company’s pro-environment rhetoric basically stopped, because they felt, ‘Now our guy is in charge.’”

While acknowledging that DuPont paid and treated him well, Muller says, “I began to not like the way they spent so much energy on bullshit and propaganda and suborning the regulatory process rather than just knuckling down and fixing the problems. I didn’t like being involved in that.”

And so an environmental advocate with the passion of a convert was born.

Casting about among the state’s enviro groups, he chose the Sierra Club, where he became conservation chairman. Soon his blunt style and disagreements with some club policies and members got him kicked out—via registered letter.

So, in 1995, he formed Green Delaware, recruiting longtime activists Jake Kreshtool, Ted Keller and Frieda Berryhill. Essentially a virtual organization with an email list of about 3,000 and fueled by Muller’s data-filled, aggressive newsletters, it quickly became the state’s most active—or at least most annoying—environmental group, and he gained a reputation for fact-based arguments that often irked opponents.

The 93-year-old Kreshtool, a labor lawyer and former candidate for governor, admits Muller “isn’t much on social skills,” and can be irritating, “But he’s always polite, and his testimony was determinative in many, many cases involving air pollution.”
 


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Much of Green Delaware’s support comes from an annual $10,000-$15,000 grant from the New Jersey Environmental Federation and Environmental Endowment for New Jersey. The grant recognizes Green Delaware’s work to limit water pollution, particularly in the Delaware River. Jane Nogaki, founding chair of the endowment, says Muller “is at the top of Delaware environmental groups. He can be confrontational without being belligerent, his arguments are well-grounded, and he asks questions rather than making accusations.”

Muller clearly has scored victories—a ban on industrial incinerators probably is his most significant—but most observers agree he could have accomplished much more with a less rigid approach. “Alan rarely declares victory,” says Flaherty. “What I would consider victories in a lot of cases he considers defeats.”

Bill Zak, of Citizens for Clean Power in Sussex County, understands Muller’s attitude. “He knows that conciliation often means things getting dropped in a drawer and forgotten.”

Flaherty and Nancy Willing, author of the liberal “Delaware Way” blog, exemplify another Muller trait: burning bridges.

Flaherty calls Muller “an incredibly bright man who has made environmentalism mainstream in Delaware,” then adds, “Alan has not spoken to me since January of 2006.” According to Muller, “John stabbed me in the back” during his campaign against incinerators.

Willing, also a Muller fan, says he cut her off when he perceived that she sided with the authorities in his dispute over upgrades to his Port Penn home.

Due in part to this penchant for severing ties and his prickly style, Muller has no prospective successor as director of Green Delaware. Kreshtool, Keller and Berryhill are all 80-plus, other allies have died, and younger people haven’t stepped forward.

“In my arrogance,” says Muller, “I thought if we set an example of being smarter, of having more principled behavior than other enviros, it would rub off. Ain’t happening. Maybe it’s my lack of leadership ability.”

If he leaves, Muller and others agree that Green Delaware will probably die, an event that has his foes rubbing their hands in anticipation. For others, like Jane Nogaki, it will be a great loss.

“Today, environmental groups are using social media to spread their message,” she says, “but there’s no substitute for local, grass-roots action. And that’s what Alan always did, standing up against the giants of industry and holding politicians accountable.”

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