Of Dioxin, Dumps and General Degradation

Delaware’s beleaguered environment is defended by activists and a DNREC administration that has shown some backbone in recent years. That’s a good thing, too. Our air and water need all the help they can get.

Illustration by Jacqui Oakley



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Secretary of the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control John Hughes thinks back on his youth in Rehoboth Beach.

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“We had a rag and a can of kerosene always sitting on our back porch, and when we came in from the beach, we used the rag to wipe tar off our feet,” Hughes says. “I also remember making lead soldiers as a boy, actually pouring molten lead into molds to form the soldiers.”

Tar on the beach? Exposing children to lead? That may have been acceptable 40 or 50 years ago, but not today. Environmental awareness has risen dramatically since then. But though many harmful conditions have been addressed, new concerns have replaced them. Air quality is diminished by major polluters in states west of Delaware, as well as by industries within the state. Some of the same polluters—among the worst in the country—have serious effects on local waterways. And landfills have exceeded capacity.

Environmentalists do what they can. But cleaning up the state is made difficult by two factors: Delaware’s location and its population density.

Geographically, the state is the victim of traffic along the Northeast corridor and emissions from polluters in the Midwest. This is especially true in northern Delaware, where locally generated industrial effluent is most plentiful.

The state’s dense population leads to overdeveloped land, too much of it made up of impervious surfaces. And Delawareans use their cars more than drivers in other states, which contributes to ozone levels that exceed the federal limit.

“All the work we’ve done removing polluting sources, cleaning up smokestacks, all these incredibly expensive efforts have only kept pace with the unavoidable consequences of sheer human growth,” Hughes says. “The love affair with the automobile, the non-point source, the diffuse pollution, those are the things that make our job extremely difficult.”

It may be a Sisyphusian task, environmentalists say, but officials could do a lot more. “The major threat is lack of meaningful enforcement,” says John Flaherty, former executive director of Common Cause of Delaware. “It’s not an environmental issue. It’s more of an accountability issue. We need to have our laws enforced for the benefit of the people, not special interests.”

There simply aren’t enough enforcers, according to a January 30 article in The News Journal. The story reported that 18 of 75 positions in the DNREC air quality management program are unfilled, and that the 24 percent staff shortage is much greater than those at other “notoriously” under-staffed state agencies, “including the Delaware Psychiatric Center and Department of Correction.”

What’s more, the panel that oversees funding of the program—generated from fees for smokestack permits—is dominated by industry representatives. The panel has opposed fees that would pay for the program, and panel members have suggested their plants might leave the state if smokestack fees are increased.

“An old-time ballplayer once said, ‘I cheat fair and square.’ Well, you can’t blame the players for cheating. You have to blame the umpire,” Flaherty says. “[Polluters] want to cheat fair and square using whatever political pull they can. I don’t blame them for trying that. I blame our state officials for succumbing to that.”

He points to a watershed event in the state’s regulatory history. Soon after Hughes took over DNREC in October 2002, a federal court settlement approved in March 2001 required the Motiva Enterprises (now Valero) refinery in Delaware City to install a scrubbing system designed to recycle its sulfur wastes.

Through private (read: secret) talks with environmental officials, Motiva instead pursued a system that would release more than 200 million pounds of sulfur-related wastes and other pollutants into the Delaware River each year.

Compared to the scrubbing system, the method would have saved Motiva $70 million. Due to an extensive campaign by Common Cause and Alan Muller of Green Delaware, the plan was opened to public discussion, as required by law. By February 2003, public pressure prompted Motiva to comply with the original decree and install scrubbers on its smokestack.

Since then, Flaherty says, there has been “a sea change” in DNREC’s approach to polluters. The agency has “come down hard” on the several major polluters.

“It’s changing for the better,” Flaherty says. “I still have concerns about DNREC, but in the last couple of years, with John Hughes and Jim Werner (director of DNREC’s Division of Air and Waste Management) there, I think we’re moving in the right direction. We’re about halfway there.”

DNREC figures for 2005 show that on-site releases by the state’s top toxin-emitting facilities dropped by 18 percent from 2004, and were lower by 29 percent compared to 1998 (the year power plants were brought into the list). The emissions data for 2006, due to more accurate reporting by some facilities, shows an overall rise in pollution from the previous year. Still, reported toxic releases for 2006 were 6 percent less than 1998 totals.

In November 2006, Hughes signed a regulation requiring an 87 percent reduction of air sulfur dioxide emissions and a 76 percent reduction of nitrogen oxides from the eight largest electric plants that burn coal or residual oil by 2012. The units include Conectiv’s Edge Moor plant, the City of Dover’s McKee Run plant and NRG’s Indian River plant, the state’s largest polluter. In 2006, it released more than 3.7 million pounds of toxins into the environment, a slight decrease from the previous year. The Valero refinery in Delaware City was ranked No. 2, followed by Conectiv’s Edge Moor power plants in North Wilmington, site of the infamous Toxic Mile.

Another target for environmentalists: a 500,000 ton sludge drying site at DuPont’s Edge Moor plant, which makes titanium dioxide, a white pigment. Environmentalists want the waste pile removed, claiming it contains harmful dioxin that could seep into the Delaware River, just yards away. DuPont wants to cap it.

DNREC hired the Schnabel Engineering Company of West Chester, Pennsylvania, to report on the suitability of DuPont’s plan. Schnabel’s report, submitted in December 2006, expressed “concerns and-or deficiencies” in the information DuPont used to justify capping and scolded the company for sloppy reporting. DuPont disputed virtually every criticism and reiterated that capping was the best way to remediate the site.

When the Schnabel report was released for public comment in March 2007, individual conservationists and groups such as Green Delaware, Common Cause of Delaware Riverkeeper and Progressive Democrats criticized not only DuPont, but also DNREC, for not being more vigilant.

Werner claims the only dioxin in the waste pile is “a trace amount of octahedral dioxin, which is 1,000 [times] less toxic than the dioxin typically referred to in the vernacular use of that term.” Muller disagrees. “Dioxin is so bad that even the less-harmful flavors are plenty bad” according to the EPA.

While accepting Schnabel’s recommendations, DNREC has collected more data from the site and has directed DuPont to conduct additional sampling.

“They’ve done enough testing,” Flaherty says. “DNREC should hold public hearings on this.”

The football-field-size waste pile is one of five sites that make up the Toxic Mile. Two of the sites, the Conectiv and DuPont plants, are among the state’s top 10 polluters. The other facilities include a sewage treatment plant, an asphalt shingle manufacturer and the Cherry Island landfill.

The landfill, owned by the Delaware Solid Waste Authority, is another target for environmentalists. They want it phased out to make room for an aggressive recycling program. A new permit to extend the life of Cherry Island requires increased recycling across the state. DNREC is working to support those regulations.

Wilmington is taking the lead in recycling. The city offers RecycleBank Dollars, redeemable at area stores, to participating residents. The program would nearly pay for itself if residents recycle half their trash, and it would drastically reduce the cost of sending garbage to Cherry Island.

Wilmington serves as a microcosm for problems across the state. Its air is assaulted by sites on the Toxic Mile and exhaust from traffic on I-95. It has more than 30 combined sewer overflows that are turning some northern New Castle County streams into Stygian tributaries. And land across the city shows a high concentration of arsenic left by 52 tanneries, now defunct, and old manufacturing sites.

Sewage overflow problems are common in many older cities, according to Hughes, especially during heavy rains. DNREC reports that it would cost the city $338 million to separate from its 169 miles of sewer lines. So far, Wilmington has eliminated two overflow discharge points in Canby Park at a cost of $5.75 million.

Arsenic, a naturally occurring element that can cause cancer and other problems, is prevalent in northern Delaware. Environmentalists claim the levels are exacerbated by industrial pollution and heavy use of golf course chemicals. In Wilmington, 11 of the 52 tannery sites were identified as needing immediate action. Only one of the high priority sites, Madison Garden Apartments, has been remediated through the EPA Brownfields program.

The current strategy of the tannery initiative is to treat the known sites as they are incorporated into development plans. “None of the known sites warrant enforcement action under the Hazardous Substance Cleanup Act,” according to DNREC.

Water is another concern. Many of Delaware’s streams and ponds are unsafe to swim in, let alone drink from. And the state warns against eating fish from most waterways because of elevated levels of mercury in the flesh. The regulation to reduce air emissions at the power plants will also require 80 percent reductions in mercury emissions.

The inland bays of Sussex County are under stress from a booming population—up from 157,468 in 2000 to 180,288 today. Kevin Donnelly, director of DNREC’s Division of Water Resources, asserts that conditions are improving, with many Sussex communities aggressively installing central sewer systems and taking existing septic systems off line.

There has been a systematic elimination of point sources (treatment facilities) that discharge into the bays. “We started with nine facilities that were directly discharging into the inland bays,” Donnelly says, “and we’ve only got two more to go, although those are significant: Rehoboth Beach and Millsboro.” Both are actively pursuing alternatives. The court-ordered deadline for the City of Rehoboth Beach to eliminate its discharge is 2014.

There is also concern about the loss of native flora and fauna. Suburban sprawl has introduced non-native and exotic species such as mile-a-minute, or tearthumb, weed. This annual vine can reach 25 feet in six to eight weeks, sprawling over and preventing sunlight from reaching other, more desirable vegetation. Thickets of mile-a-minute can reduce plant diversity in natural areas and degrade wildlife habitat. As of March 2006, nearly 50 percent (772 of the 1,548) of the species of plants considered native to Delaware are thought to be rare or uncommon.

Given all this, some environmentalists say the sky is falling—almost literally, due to hydrocarbons and other particulates in the atmosphere—while placing the blame on public officials and policies in a state they say kowtows to jobs and industry at the expense of air and water. Opposing that view are decision makers like Hughes, who note progress and counsel patience.

Meanwhile, Delaware’s environmental troubles play out against the threat of global warming, as well as a Washington administration that, says Muller, is the “most anti-environmental in history.”

“A few positive steps have been taken, mostly at the state level,” he says, “but the big picture is very alarming.”



Cherry Island Landfill

This Landfill is your Landfill
Cherry Island gets a 16-year extension, but at what cost?

When the Cherry Island Landfill was established 33 years ago, recycling was something of an alien concept. Few households gave much thought to what they were throwing away.

The landfill, east of Wilmington along the Delaware River, approached capacity faster than officials expected. By late 2005 it was estimated that New Castle County’s only dump would reach 172 feet over sea level—its maximum height, based on original permits—by 2010.

Sensing a pending crisis, the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control issued a conditional permit in January 2006, adding 23 feet to the dump’s maximum height. That equals 15 million cubic yards and stretches its estimated lifespan to 2026.

But with the permit comes caveats. The Delaware Solid Waste Authority, which manages landfills in the state, is now required to provide quarterly residential hazardous waste collection, create a recycling plan to divert 40 percent of the landfill’s municipal waste, and create an on-site recovery center for recyclables.

But perhaps the most contentious regulation was the requirement that the dump stop accepting yard waste such as leaves, branches and grass clippings as of January 2007. Such waste makes up 14 percent of what is deposited there, and 23 states ban dumping of the material. Some Delaware legislators argued that, because county residents had no alternatives to curbside trash pickup, the ban was unreasonable. They put the requirement on hold in May while DNREC established collection guidelines for residents, municipalities and private trash haulers.

Earlier this year, another bill that would have nixed the ban was tabled. The yard waste measure went into effect in January. That means New Castle County residents must find other ways to dispose of the stuff. One simple alternative for those with space: composting. —Scott Pruden



Valero oil refinery

Too Close for Comfort
One of the state’s major polluters is likely your neighbor.
by Drew Ostroski

NRG Energy power plant, Millsboro

Since the plant went online in the 1950s, it has been blamed for everything from cancer in humans to fish kills in nearby waterways. The plant, with four coal-fired electric generating units, is one of the top polluters in the United States. It reported emitting nearly 4 million pounds of toxins such as sulfur dioxide and mercury in 2006. A state study showed a higher cancer rate in residents who live near the plant, and is now researching possible causes.

Bill Zak and his Citizens for Clean Power are pushing to clean up coal-fired power plants while finding cleaner sources of energy, such as wind. “When the coal power plant is on its last breath, we could have locally generated power to make up for the loss,” Zak says. In the meantime, NRG will shut down the two oldest units by 2011. Activists are working to stop the plant’s cooling system from killing fish and have asked for monitors to be placed in nearby neighborhoods to track air pollution. Others want monitors attached directly to smokestacks.


Valero Energy oil refinery, Delaware City

The refinery reported 3.3 million pounds of toxic emissions in 2006. Due to changes in the way the plant calculates releases, Valero reported an increase of 2.5 million pounds of nitrates into the Delaware River—10 times the amount recorded for 2005. Valero ranks second in the country among petroleum facilities for total on-site releases. Activists say the refinery’s cooling system kills millions of fish a year. In February, a power outage caused the release of an undetermined amount of pollution.

Thanks to a phase-out of MTBE in favor of ethanol, reported releases of the gasoline additive have decreased by 62 percent. Valero recently installed scrubbers on two of its nastiest smokestacks cutting overall pollution in half. Alan Muller of Green Delaware and others call for increased enforcement of violations. “If I were king of the world,” Muller says, “I would force the refineries and power plants to reduce pollutants by 10 percent every year for 10 years. They could do it.”


Conectiv Energy Edge Moor-Hay Road plants, Wilmington

Two coal-fired units and an oil-fired unit produced more than 1.5 million pounds of toxins, primarily EPA-regulated acid gases, in 2006. Other chemicals produced include four persistent bioaccumulative and toxic pollutants—including mercury—which are known to pose health problems such as cancer, heart and lung disease, and birth defects. An EPA study found that the plants’ cooling water intakes, which cycle nearly 1 billion gallons of water from the Delaware River a day, kills tens of millions of fish each year.

Alan Muller of Green Delaware says the only reasonable way to curtail pollution is to shut down power plants and replace them with clean energy. The next best solution is to place pollution controls on smokestacks. All agree that consumers must work harder at conserving energy, which would reduce demand for electricity generation. Construction of cooling towers would prevent fish kills and stop the flow of heated water back into the river.


Invista nylon plant, Seaford

Invista’s 70-year-old nylon plant generates electricity and steam for heat. It reported more than 700,000 pounds of toxins released from its facility in 2006. Coal combustion produces chemicals such as hydrochloric and sulfuric acids that are released into the air, while nitrate compounds formed during wastewater treatment are released into water. Toxins released as ash vary according to the metals and other impurities contained in coal. The ash is discarded at an on-site landfill near the Nanticoke River and two of its branches. According to DNREC, groundwater at the site and sediment in the Nanticoke contain arsenic, a carcinogen, from Invista.

They need to close the landfill and start dispensing of waste in a permanent, lined industrial landfill,” says John Austin, a retired EPA scientist from Lewes. “The plant needs to be brought under the same emissions standards as larger plants, and scrubbers for nitrogen oxide emissions need to be installed.”


DuPont Edge Moor plant

This plant makes titanium dioxide, a white pigment used in paint and paper. DuPont reported more than 300,000 pounds of toxic releases in 2006. The toxins that draw the most interest from environmentalists are dioxins, chemicals that some say are second only to radiation in toxicity. The Edge Moor site ranks first in the U.S. for off-site transfer of dioxin and dioxin-like compounds. According to DNREC, most dioxins at the plant are captured in sludge and transferred out of state, but the infamous “dioxin pile” on the Delaware River has yet to be reconciled.

Through 2005, production of dioxins was reduced by more than 75 percent from 2001 levels, although on-site release of dioxins increased in 2006. DuPont completed a project last year that should decrease production of dioxins. “Hopefully the amount of dioxins in the waste diminishes,” says John Austin, a retired EPA scientist. “They have to address the pile. The safest thing is to box it up and move it as hazardous waste.”

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