Saturday, December 3, 2022

A local coalition’s fight against the state to preserve community health and protect the environment

NewsDelaware NewsA local coalition’s fight against the state to preserve community health and protect the environment

BY KONNER METZ
Managing Sports Editor




Jeffrey Richardson is no stranger to the tribulations of dealing with state agencies and departments. But the state of Delaware and its Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control (DNREC) present one of the toughest challenges he has faced: repeated restrictions on, and dismissals of, public participation.

So when a July 26 hearing with DNREC’s Environmental Appeals Board concerning a proposed expansion port north of Wilmington fell flat, Richardson felt as if he and his peers were pushed aside unfairly in favor of larger entities. Richardson is the chairman of the Delaware Community Benefits Agreement Coalition (DCBAC), a local community group that serves the interests of local residents.

“The state is essentially organized around corporate interests,” Richardson said, likening the state to acting as “judge, jury and executioner.”

Back in 2020, the Diamond State Port Corporation forged a plan to expand Wilmington as a port magnet on the nation’s East Coast. Just two miles north of the Port of Wilmington, the proposed expansion port in Edgemoor would have serious impacts on air quality, truck emissions, traffic and water quality, per Richardson and the DCBAC’s assessment of the permit.

The proposed port would include the installation of thirteen fans in the Delaware River – putting aquatic species at risk. A 2,600-foot long wharf would be built, and 3,200 feet of barrier would run along the shoreline. 

While the permit for the expansion port has been traveling through a lengthy approval process, Richardson and others are fighting against the Appeals Board for standing, which would give the DCBAC the opportunity to appeal the merits of the permit.

The group could also then attempt to institute a “community benefits agreement,” which sets clear environmental regulations with the intention of protecting the local Wilmington community.

This spring, the DCBAC was rejected standing status, as they were not able to obtain legal counsel to back them.

Richardson, however, sees the state’s requirement to have an attorney as unaffordable for a community benefits group that does not act as a business entity. 

When the group’s standing was struck down, a visiting attorney at the Environmental Law Institute tried to spread the word.

Scott Wilson Badenoch Jr., a longtime environmental justice lawyer based out of California, made contacts with attorneys in the area, in hopes of finding representation for the DCBAC. He attended July’s hearing that concerned Richardson’s individual standing, and felt the process was unjust.

“It was truly evidence of discrimination,” Badenoch said. “The lawyers for the other groups that were at the hearing, all white and never once interrupted. But Jeffrey and these lay people were just trying to voice their concerns, and were interrupted nonstop, treated with utter disrespect and disdain.”

During Richardson’s opening statement as an individual appellant, he was interrupted three times by the Appeals Board, who claimed that the topic of securing legal counsel as a group was not the issue at hand. 

Richardson disagreed, saying that requiring legal counsel was a significant barrier to public participation and contradicted DNREC’s own mission statement that says “environmental justice seeks equity for minority and low-income communities that may be disproportionately exposed – and vulnerable – to adverse environmental impacts.”

Both Richardson and Badenoch see the lack of constructive public participation in the permit process as an environmental injustice to Black and low income communities in Wilmington, specifically those closest to the port and most likely to suffer from the worsened air and water quality.

While they try to get the state to consider a community benefits agreement, Richardson said the coalition is focusing on increasing awareness of the issue among Wilmington residents.

“This is a long-term commitment,” Richardson said. “Historically, change takes time. Even though we want it to happen immediately, which would be the right thing to do, government and power don’t tend to do the right thing right away.”

That commitment will continue in the search for legal counsel, too. While Richardson said there have been positive discussions with some Delaware lawyers, Badenoch mentioned that convincing practicing attorneys to stick their neck out against corporations and state agencies is a tall task.

“You have to think about what lawyers do in their day job,” Badenoch said. “In Delaware, they’re going to represent corporations. That means that they’re not going to be interested in representing communities.”

Even with the fight to attain legal counsel and standing in the appeal process, Richardson said the coalition’s work is constantly ongoing.

“It is our mission to get the word out and let people know what they can do. Eventually you have to keep pressing on that point.”

He calls his group “very consistent” in making themselves available to have discussions with the entities involved. He believes they have made the most headway with Gulftainer USA, the operators of the Wilmington port.

However, it is the state’s environmental agency and Appeals Board that hold much of the power in deciding whether or not to award the permit. Richardson wants the public to become more aware of the permit’s potential side effects, in a state with a bad reputation for poor water and air quality, as reported by the Environmental Integrity Project’s Clean Water Act at 50.

“I don’t think that’s really understood as much by the general public,” Richardson said. “We’re facing some real health issues here.”

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