Critics warn a proposed bill designed to "modernize" Delaware's Coastal Zone Act will actually gut the landmark piece of environmental legislation. 

Delaware state Rep. Ed Osienski and state Senator Bryan Townsend, both D-Newark, introduced House Bill 190 last Thursday. The bill would allow heavy industry to redevelop some of Delaware's most contaminated land and allow new bulk product transfer operations at sites that had piers before 1971, when former Delaware Governor Russ Peterson signed the CZA into law. 

Transferring bulk goods by ship is currently prohibited under the CZA, legislation that controlled the location, extent and type of industrial development in Delaware's coastal areas to protect the natural environment. 

The bill has sharply divided business leaders and environmentalists in the state. 

Osienski said the bipartisan bill was drafted after years of pleading from the business community to loosen some of the CZA's restrictions.

"I felt the way the business community's message was starting to gain momentum, I was a little fearful that if someone else ran the bill, with the momentum it had, it may have opened it up more and got enough votes," Osienski said. 

The bill amends the part of the CZA that makes it hard for new companies to come in and repurpose abandoned heavy-industry sites along the Delaware River. HB 190 would limit the redevelopment to the 14 heavy-industry coastal zone sites grandfathered in under the CZA. Many of those sites now sit abandoned or are underused.

"It really shut down opportunity for good jobs here, but I didn't think we should go and open up everything in the coastal zone. This is less than 2 percent of the total coastal zone and these areas now have been damaged and they have some toxic materials in the ground. If any site should have heavy industry back on it, it would be the ones that are already been kind of scorched, but this also would require the business to come in and clean it up," Osienski said. 

"HB 190 does not "modernize" the Coastal Zone Act. Instead, it significantly weakens core protections in the Act in the unsubstantiated hope that backwards-looking options like heavy industry will somehow provide an economic boost to Delaware," said Kenneth Kristl of the Environmental & Natural Resources Law Clinic, Widener University Delaware Law School.

"Russ Peterson warned us that once he died, lawmakers would start hacking away at the Coastal Zone Act," said Matt DelPizzo, president of Delaware Audubon Society. "I can say for certain he would be completely against what they're doing with making possibly the coastal zone into a raw product transfer hub with innumerable barges and who knows how much product and multiplying the chances for catastrophic spills somewhere in the coastal zone."

But Osienski said it comes down to the CZA's intent, another area where environmentalists and the business community disagree. 

"They envisioned the bill's intent was for all industry to eventually go out of business, become obsolete, and there would be no longer any heavy industry in the coastal zone," Osienski said. "A lot of folks from the business community feel that wasn't the initial intent to drive business out of the coast. There should be a balance between having jobs, and creating an industry and also keeping our environment clean."

DelPizzo wishes the public would have been more involved before state lawmakers rolled out a bill of this magnitude. He warned any changes will not only weaken protections of the CZA, but also endanger wildlife and neighboring communities. 

The bill has been assigned to the House Resources Committee.