State officials with the Department of Natural Resources and Environment Control know there are elevated dust levels in Eden Park, but don’t know where exactly the dust is coming from.
Last month they installed new equipment that may help them figure that out— by looking at specific components of the dust and tracking those in real time with wind direction.
Residents of Eden Park, a small neighborhood along Route 9 in New Castle, have complained about airborne dust for years.
“The dust actually covers the cars, covers the houses,” said Pastor Louis McDuffy, president of the Eden-Hamilton Park Civic Association. "You cannot survive with that level of black soot. You just cannot.
David Fees, acting director of the Division of Air Quality at DNREC, says resident complaints drove officials to first begin collecting data two years ago.
“We’ve been hearing from community members ... that one of their complaints in terms of air quality was dust. So we thought, well, let’s bring the MMP [Moveable Monitoring Platform],” said Fees.
What's in the air?
DNREC installed the Moveable Monitoring Platform (MMP) in Eden Park in fall 2016, and have been collecting data on several basic air quality measures.
They’ve found that peak levels of ozone, sulfur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide are comparable to those at monitoring stations in the City of Wilmington or at Brandywine Creek State Park.
And peak values for these pollutants over several months in Eden Park were below the EPA’s primary standards.
New Castle County as a whole recieved a failing air quality grade for ozone in the American Lung Association's 2018 State of the Air report— for the 19th year in a row.
Through the MMP, DNREC found the level of dust, or Total Suspended Particulates, in Eden Park exceeded the state primary standard once between fall 2016 and spring 2018.
That standard is meant to protect health.
"There’s an amount of impact that’s considered to some extent unhealthy,” said Fees. “So someone that’s susceptible to asthma, already has [an] existing respiratory problem could experience health impact and outward signs.”
Total Suspended Particulates is only measured by the MMP every three days.
Fees says the measure is not all that informative when it comes to health impacts.
“Total Suspended Particulate, and that’s really all sizes of particulate. Anything from very course material that you can obviously see, down to smaller particles that are pretty much invisible,” said Fees.
The standard measure for “smaller particles” is particulate matter that is 2.5 microns across— or less than 1/20 the width of a human hair.
The peak level of this measure between fall 2016 and spring 2018 in Eden Park was similar to that at the permanent monitoring station in the City of Wilmington — and below the national primary standard.
“We concluded that this high level of dust showed that it was really the coarse material that was the problem which is more of a quality of life nuisance issue in terms of clogging air conditioning filters, soiling clothes being hung out to dry, coating your car, and otherwise being an annoyance, and these are the issues that community member expressed to us,” he said.
Wilmington Area Planning Council (WILMAPCO) Planner Bill Swiatek told Delaware Public Media in August that the "public health" concerns in Eden Park stem from the community's proximity to heavy industry— a result of zoning.
He says the area around Eden Park and Hamilton Park is an example of bad zoning.
“You have residential communities that are located way too close to industrial zoned land,” said Swiatek. “In the case of Hamilton Park and the case of Eden Park, they’re completely surrounded by industrial land. You have cases where interstates cut through neighborhoods, the seaport is very close to the communities and so forth, so this area didn’t really develop with a plan in mind. It just sort of developed haphazardly.”
Eden Park is currently and historically a majority African-American community. The median annual household income in Eden Park and neighboring Hamilton Park is around $32,000, according to a WILMAPCO mapping analysis of available demographic data.
No environmental violations issued
The Division of Air Quality permits — or has uninforceable “dust plans” — for most of the nearby industrial operations, including Diamond Materials, Clean Earth and the Port of Wilmington.
According to officials, DNREC has not recently issued any notice of violations to sources in the area— despite what they call “increased scrutiny” to permitted and some non-permitted facilities.
“I think the … reason why we’ve gone two years and not really found a smoking gun, is it appears that it’s a multitude of sources— both … stationary sources, permitted and unpermitted, as well as mobile sources,” said Fees.
Several companies in the area could not be reached for comment.
DNREC is moving to further identify the sources of the dust. They recently installed a “Realtime Monitor” on the MMP which will look at particulate speciation, or as Fees explains it,“What’s in the dust. What are the compound components.”
The new monitor will allow staff to coordinate this data with wind speed and direction. Fees says this will likely help DNREC narrow down which specific operations are contributing most to the dust problem.
Overlapping environmental burdens
McDuffy has been tracking environmental issues in his community for years — including the nearby Halby Superfund Site.
“We have other chemicals in there that are causing problems,” said McDuffy.
He says overlapping environmental factors in his community mean the five measures of air quality the MMP collects data on don’t paint a full picture of health impacts in Eden Park.
“It’s the difference between what the scientists say on a piece of paper and what the experience is,” said McDuffy. “Because the experience what you’re dealing with is a combination of factors. Once that thing happens repeatedly and the children experience this from when they’re born, then you have a problem.”
This summer, a University of Delaware researcher surveyed residents on their perceptions of the environment in their neighborhoods.
The survey is meant, in part, to gauge residents’ desire to relocate.
County officials presented preliminary results of the survey to the two communities at a civic association meeting this week.