Some residents near a proposed slag grinding facility have taken a hard line against it. Others are hoping to work with the company planning to build it.
Walan Specialty Construction Products is seeking a permit to build the facility, which would take blast furnace slag in through the Port of Wilmington and grind it into a powdered cement additive.
The operation would be located along the Christina River east of Southbridge. It is expected to emit nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds—which contribute to ground level ozone—as well as fine dust.
“Right behind our neighborhood is the Riverfront. And then South Wilmington— all those beautiful homes they’re getting. We want some of those in our neighborhood. Not a cement grinding facility,” said Marie Reed, president of the Southbridge Civic Association. “So on behalf of the Southbridge community, no. Not in our backyard.”
At a community meeting Saturday, several locals cast conditions in Southbridge and the adjacent Route 9 corridor as environmental racism.
According to the Wilmington Area Planning Council, the neighborhoods closest to the Port are predominantly African-American.
The area is marked by industrial-zoned land in close proximity to residential land. A 2017 Union of Concerned Scientists report identified several of the neighborhoods in the area as having “substantially higher cancer risks” than a comparison community.
Jakim Mohammed is the chair of the Democratic Committee for the 16th Representative District where the facility would be built. He thinks conditions in the area are bad enough to stop any more industry from coming in.
“We need to have a moratorium on industrial building in the Route 9 Corridor,” said Mohammed.
Ronald “Kimoko” Harris with the International Longshoreman’s Association Local 1883 at the Port of Wilmington disagrees.
“That would shut the port down, and shut down what we’re trying to do with Edgemoor and the port expansion,” said Harris. “Because with ports, industry is going to come. And that’s what we want. Because when they come jobs are going to come with them.”
But Harris also thinks industry should be held accountable for environmental impacts. “So it’s about enforcement. And DNREC has to be our enforcement agency,” he said. “They’re there, supposedly, to protect us.”
Dunleith resident Sandra Smithers thinks monitoring would need to come from elsewhere.
“Definitely not DNREC. That would be a community group that includes the company.”
Smithers envisions a community benefits agreement with the company, which she says would protect residents.
“We know that jobs have to come to our community to offset some of the issues that we have, but we also know that we have to protect the community’s health. So we have to strike a balance.”
She says she has started a coalition of residents to determine what the community’s ‘asks’ would be— and eventually negotiate a community benefits agreement that all new industry in the area would have to adhere to. “We’d cover the environment, we’d cover employment,” she said. “And then what the company needs. And then we have to meld those.”
Marie Reed of the Southbridge Civic Association agrees that if Walan’s permit is approved, the company should agree to provide benefits to neighbors.
“Things for our community center or bookbags or coat giveaways— no, no, no. We want them to set up a fund through our medical center … to help with future medical expenses for those with cancer, and asthma,” said Reed.
“I know it’s going to happen anyway,” said Southbridge resident Diana Dixon of Walan’s permit approval. “I’m not crazy, I know it’s going to happen. But what are the benefits for us?”
Sharon Morgan, Walan’s lawyer with Wilmington-based Fox Rothchild, says the Walan is open to considering a community benefits agreement. “I haven’t spoken with my client about it before today, but I would recommend that we put something together that gets the community comfortable to the extent they’re not already.”
Lisa Dharwadkar, vice president of Walan, adds she is willing to meet with Smithers’ community benefits coalition. “It is about a balance, and we want to be part of the solution, not part of the problem here.”
The public comment period on Walan’s construction permit is open through the end of December.