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DNREC hosts 'environmental justice roundtable' in Route 9 corridor

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Sophia Schmidt, Delaware Public Media
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Route 9 near Hamilton Park, a neighborhood where residents complain of soil and air pollution caused by industry

The state environmental agency is hoping to improve communication with what it calls “environmental justice communities."

 

The Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control (DNREC) is hosting an “Environmental Justice Roundtable” at 10:30 a.m. Saturday morning at the Route 9 Library in New Castle.

DNREC Secretary Shawn Garvin hopes the event is the first step in beginning to improve lines of communication between the agency and underserved communities who are disproportionately impacted by environmental issues.

Garvin says he will look to answer questions such as,“Where are environmental justice communities? Who are the leaders in those communities? Who should we be communicating with?”

Members of the New Jersey Institute of Technology’s Technical Assistance to Brownfield Communities team will facilitate the meeting, which will also seek feedback from residents about topics including the types of information communities need, when such information should go out, and possible language barriers.

Garvin notes the meeting will not focus on specific communities, environmental issues or polluting facilities. He says no past or present permit decisions will be discussed.

“Were not always going to agree,” he said. “There are decisions that we’ll have to make as a department … based on law and based on science that may be different from what others deem we should have done. But what I don’t want is ... a lack of understanding or a lack of communication on why a decision was made.”

He says the goal is to establish ways to talk more directly with environmental justice communities, which he says can be “co-opted” by outside groups pushing their own agendas. “We need to peel past that and really get to the communities themselves and make sure that they’re hearing us—and, as importantly or more importantly, we’re hearing them.”

Garvin says individuals DNREC has interacted previously with on issues of environmental justice were invited to the meeting directly by email. He says the event was not promoted publicly, but that it is not a closed meeting.

Penny Dryden of the statewide coalition Delaware Environmental Justice Community Partnerships is among advocates criticizing DNREC for planning Saturday’s event without help from community groups. She said in a written statement her group offered to help plan the event, but that DNREC “insisted on doing it alone, which is against EJ [environmental justice] principles.”

“Until we become more engaged under principled partnerships, our communication remains difficult and ineffective” she said.

Garvin says by organizing the event independently of community groups, DNREC hopes to give all attendees an “open opportunity” without feeling one group has “more of a voice” than another.

The Route 9 Corridor, where Saturday’s event will be held, is home to several neighborhoods that could be considered “environmental justice communities,” says Garvin.

Residents of Eden Park Gardens and Hamilton Park— two small neighborhoods on Route 9 just south of Wilmington— were the subject of a survey last year that revealed roughly half of respondents would be likely to move away if given fair value for their homes or financial assistance. Residents there complain of environmental burdens, including airborne dust, they say reduce quality of life and property values.

Residents near the Delaware Memorial Bridge spoke out last year about environmental risks after a toxic, explosive gas leak occurred at Croda’s Atlas Point plant.

Communities along Route 9 and residents of Wilmington’s Southbridge neighborhood began discussions last year with a permit applicant seeking to build a slag grinding facility about a “community benefits agreement” should the permit be approved.

Most recently, residents and local elected officials have voiced opposition to the proposed expansion of Waste Management’s Delaware Recyclable Products, Inc. landfill in West Minquadale. The comment period on that permit modification application remains open until later this month.

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