State of the State

Is Delaware being ruined? Or does our quality of life rank among the best? The answer depends on who you ask. Here’s what some of the state’s highest-ranking public officials have to report.

Russell Peterson’s phone rang early and often one day late last summer. Several local candidates had heard about an energy company that is considering building an ethanol refinery in Claymont along the Delaware River.

The candidates turned to Peterson, an internationally known environmental activist and, as governor in 1971, architect of Delaware’s Coastal Zone Act, to help them decide where they should stand on the issue.

“Stand against it,” Peterson advised. “It doesn’t need to be in the Coastal Zone. That would establish a precedent. There are no exceptions.”

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In a nutshell, “no exceptions” is how the Coastal Zone Act has protected the First State’s coast against heavy industry for 35 years. The measure, admired by environmentalists worldwide, has helped fend off multiple oil refineries and prohibit other industries from locating near the Delaware River and Delaware Bay. The BP Liquefied Natural Gas facility proposed across the river in New Jersey is another in a long line of heavy hitters to step to the plate against the Coastal Zone Act.

The proposed ethanol plant is only one issue the state faces in the delicate balance between economic development, environment protection and public health.

But there are obviously many other concerns.

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This fall, the attention of more business-minded folks is focused on the resolution of a workers’ compensation issue that continues to drag on behind the political scenes. Economic development types argue that the state is losing valuable businesses to the threat of high-priced premiums while trial lawyers battle against a cap on court awards.

Other residents, such as parents of public school students, are concerned with the Delaware Student Testing Program. Are their children getting the proper education, or are they simply learning how to take tests? Of course, all eyes are on the Christina School District’s financial troubles as students, teachers and taxpayers continue to suffer.

If you’re a prisoner or family or friend to a prisoner, odds are you’re disgusted with the health care, or lack thereof, in Delaware’s correctional facilities and perhaps encouraged that a federal investigation is ongoing. But for those with no connections to prisoners, does the prison health care issue even rate?

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Most of us are more likely concerned about the financial problems with DelDOT’s Transportation Trust Fund and the potential for tax and fee hikes to get road construction efforts back on track. The more paranoid among us may be preoccupied by a possible avian flu pandemic, a direct hit from a Category 5 hurricane or another terrorist attack. (We understand we no longer need to sweat the killer bees.)

More immediate threats to the public health are Delaware’s continued high cancer incidence and mortality rates and our high infant mortality rate.

From the environment and economy to public safety and transportation, there are many factors that profoundly affect our quality of life. Land use, for example, is an issue that transcends—or involves—many of these categories.

People continue to move to Delaware in droves. Is this population growth needed to keep our economy healthy, or is it the root of all of our problems?

There is no fancy formula to determine the overall state of our state, so how do we begin to gauge our quality of life? How good, or bad, do we have it here?

It all depends who you are, who you ask and when you ask them.


The Environment

Cleaning up and protecting Delaware’s environment is a tall order. We long ago damaged some of our resources to an extent that reversing our mess might seem a lost cause.

John Hughes, secretary of the state’s Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control, admits that we’re fighting an uphill battle to make our rivers, bays and streams once again “swimmable and fishable,” but he says you have to start somewhere.

“Everybody could move out of Delaware tomorrow, leave this place alone and, in 30 years, the waters will still be polluted,” he says. “They’d be better, but everything isn’t going to just clean up the day we stop polluting. So we have to admit that there is a good argument for patience. But you’ve got to start. Whether you can measure the results or whatever, you just can’t sit around.”

The announcement of swimming areas being closed to the public due to high bacteria counts has become a rite of summer in recent years. Though our ocean beaches seem relatively clean, DNREC has issued a standing warning against swimming in our inland bays because of pollutants. We still read about fish kills in the inland bays, and we’ve all winced at the green scum that accumulates on pond surfaces and other polluted bodies of water.

The primary problem is nutrients, which come from sewage, gardens, lawns and farms. We recognize that over-fertilizing our lawn is harmful to the environment, and we support the cleanup of our waterways, yet the problem still exists.

“Our level of pollution is still high,” Hughes says. “Years ago we kind of picked the low hanging fruit when we regulated community sewer systems and point sources: the factories and the pollution you see coming out of the end of a pipe.

“Now we’re down to the hard stuff—subtle, pervasive pollution. Pollution caused by over-fertilizing a backyard garden, remaining pollution from septic systems and imperfect sewer plants.”

The state continues to attack the nutrient problem through policy such as the Department of Agriculture’s Nutrient Management Program, which regulates and manages farming activities that generate or apply nutrients. But most of our surface water still falls short of federally mandated water quality standards. The federal standards require the state to examine the capacity of a body of water and determine how much of any given pollutant it can handle and still be fishable and swimmable.

“When you apply a fishable and swimmable standard to Delaware water bodies,” says Hughes, “most of them fail.”

Hughes says we recognize the sources and amounts of pollution better than ever, but successful pollution control strategies are not easy to develop because all players, from environmentalists to developers, must agree on an approach. DNREC has, for example, worked for a year and a half on a strategy to control pollution in the inland bays. The plan was finally unveiled this fall.

The task of cleaning up polluted air falls on other states as much as it does Delaware, says Hughes. For years, the coal-burning Indian River Power Plant in Millsboro has topped the list of Delaware polluters and has ranked near the top nationally. The power plant at Edgemoor and oil refineries and related businesses at Delaware City are also culprits in all sorts of environmental fouling, air pollution included. But the poor air quality that leads to the presence of dangerous ground-level ozone on hot, stagnant summer days is delivered by prevailing winds, primarily from heavily industrialized cities to our west, including Baltimore and Akron, Ohio.

“Air quality is sort of a no-fun, constant and relentless job here,” Hughes says. “There are new initiatives, regulations, new concerns coming across this desk every week. I don’t anticipate any end until we develop alternatives to fossil fuels, particularly for automobiles.”

Hughes, however, is encouraged by two recent developments in Delaware. Valero, owner of the oil refinery at Delaware City, has installed scrubbers in two of its smokestacks, which are intended to prevent tons of sulfur dioxide from escaping into the air. And NRG, the company that owns the Indian River Power Plant, is considering construction of a new, high-tech facility that would be 95 percent to 98 percent cleaner than the current plant. Construction of a new plant depends on whether NRG can land a contract with Delmarva Power this year.

“If NRG meets our standards for the old plant and supplies us with the electricity we need down in southern Delaware with a new coal plant, they’ll become industry leaders,” Hughes says, “and they’ll drop right off our toxic release inventory.”

Hughes notes that it would cost millions, if not billions, of dollars in improvements for the current plant to meet state pollution standards.

The installation of Valero’s long-awaited scrubbers was completed after years of legal wrangling between former refinery owners and the state and federal governments, but Hughes believes Valero, unlike previous companies that ditched the refinery before making changes to control pollution, is willing to invest in the environment.

“It looks to me like they’re here for a while,” he says. “Previous owners looked like they were renting the place rather than buying it. If you rent a car, you don’t rebuild the engine. Valero is rebuilding the engine.”


Land Use and Development

DNREC’s mission also includes protecting and managing the state’s natural resources. A key to meeting that mandate is to preserve the best of what is left. Land use, Hughes says, is a major component of environmental policy.

“You can have every environmental law, regulation and policy in the world, and you can have all the money to work with and all the employees and wonderful people that I have,” Hughes says, “but if you’ve lost the land use, you don’t have an environment left to do much with.”

Governor Ruth Ann Minner’s Livable Delaware approach allows room for economic growth and development, but the growth must occur in areas already supported by infrastructure and services. The approach includes preserving open space and natural resources.

The state has preserved 42,000 acres since the Open Space Council was formed in 1990. Minner touts $122 million spent to permanently preserve 462 farms encompassing more than 82,000 acres. The state is now focusing on preserving prime forest. All tidal wetlands are protected from development, so “they can be put down as a saved resource,” Hughes says. “But when you look at the amount of land in Delaware that’s protected and the amount of land that should be protected, there’s a sharp divide.”

Hughes cites a lack of money to purchase and preserve large tracts. He says the $9 million typically allotted for land preservation in the budget each year doesn’t go far with today’s high property values.

Minner hopes the legislature will do next year what it didn’t this past session: pass a Transfer of Development Rights bill that steers development to areas of existing high density and keeps open space open. Minner battled with lawmakers during the end of the last General Assembly, ultimately vetoing a bill that would have weakened a major conservation program. The Open Space Act provides for a State Resource Area program that designates 286,000 acres as important natural habitats that could be included for preservation or protected from certain kinds of development. The General Assembly had passed a bill that would have let property owners exclude their land from the program. Development decisions would be made at the county level.

“The state resource area was a concept where we just asked for additional protection for those valuable areas,” Hughes says. “If you want to come into Delaware from Chicago, buy some land, develop it and leave, you’re probably not going to like the state resource area concept.

“But if you’re here for the long haul, if you’re part of the Delaware tradition, state resource areas make a lot of sense. The environment is what brought us here in the first place.”


Public Health

It’s no secret. Delaware for years has ranked among the country’s worst in the percentage of cancer cases and cancer deaths. And our infant mortality rate remains one of the highest in the nation.

Minner entered the governor’s office in 2000 vowing to make cancer control a priority. Her agenda appears to be working. Other priorities include public health preparedness, infant mortality, and elimination of racial and ethnic disparities in health care.

“It’s a pretty big bite for any governor to take,” says public health director Dr. Jaime Rivera.

Even Republican critics such as House Majority Leader Wayne Smith tip their cap to Minner’s commitment to fighting cancer.

According to the nonprofit United Health Foundation, Delaware ranked 50th in cancer mortality rate, with 222.9 deaths per 100,000 population in 1990. We improved to 45th in 2004. Our rate of 210.2 last year ranked 34th. Delaware’s rate of decline is faster than that of any other state.

Minner and Rivera credit a number of new programs for helping to lower cancer mortality figures, including the Screening for Life Program that pays for cancer screening tests for qualified adults. Since 2002 the program has screened 944 uninsured or underinsured residents, removed polyps from 166 patients and diagnosed 19 cancers.

The Delaware Cancer Treatment Program, established in 2004, paid for cancer treatment for 164 residents during its first year. The program pays for a year of treatment for uninsured residents diagnosed with cancer who are at or below 650 pe

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