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House passes bill opening coastal zone to new industry

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DOVER, Del. (AP) — A bill opening Delaware’s environmentally protected coastal zone to new heavy industry easily cleared the state House on Tuesday and now goes to the Senate.

The bill, supported by Democratic Gov. John Carney, establishes a permitting process for new use of 14 existing industry sites, including abandoned and polluted brownfields.

It also allows the currently prohibited transfer of bulk products such as oil, grain and minerals at sites that had docking facilities or piers before enactment of the Coastal Zone Act in 1971.

While the proposal would not allow certain heavy industry uses that did not exist in 1971, including oil refineries, paper and steel mills, incinerators and liquefied natural gas terminals, the Delaware City oil refinery would remain grandfathered under the Coastal Zone Act.

Supporters of the bill, including the State Chamber of Commerce and organized labor, say the Coastal Zone Act’s restrictions on industry have been an impediment to economic development, and that modifying it could spur manufacturing.

“It’s going to be a job creator for Delaware, and we need to get our economy going,” Rep. Ronald Gray, a Republican from Selbyville, said before Tuesday’s 34-to-7 vote.

But environmentalists remain concerned about the measure, saying the existing law has played a key role in protecting ecologically sensitive areas along the Delaware River and Bay, as well as coastal beach resorts that are the linchpins of Delaware’s multibillion-dollar tourism industry. Environmental groups are particularly worried about the provision of the bill allowing bulk product transfers from ship to shore.

Kenneth Kristl, director of the environmental law clinic at Delaware Law School, also testified Tuesday that the legislation does not guarantee that any of the 14 sites would be any cleaner if opened up to new development than they would be under existing environmental remediation standards.

Before passing the measure, lawmakers tacked on several amendments, including requirements for biennial reports from state agencies on the economic impact and environmental effects of the new permitting process.

Lawmakers also approved an amendment clarifying that the transfer of non-grain bulk products would be allowed only to the extent such products are part of production processes within the Coastal Zone, and that pass-through bulk product transfers would not be allowed.

Another amendment clarifies that new owners, operators, or prospective purchasers of the sites in question are responsible for covering ongoing costs of compliance with environmental statutes relating to pre-existing contamination.

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