Justice For All?

Above: The Route 9 corridor near Delaware Memorial Bridge is dense with industry, landfills and residents who suffer the cumulative impacts of local pollution. Photo by Doc Searls.

Why are the communities nearest large polluters are disproportionately low income and Black, Brown or Latino? It’s an old and complex story that is difficult to change. Some are trying.

At 4:15 p.m. on the Sunday after Thanksgiving 2018, 2,688 pounds of toxic and flammable gas called ethylene oxide gas started leaking from Croda’s Atlas Point plant north of New Castle. 

The gas is tied to respiratory problems, neurological damage, and cancer. ProPublica has found it is the largest contributor to excess industrial cancer risk of air pollutants nationwide.

Officials closed the Delaware Memorial Bridge and used the Delaware Emergency Notification System to alert nearby residents to shelter in place. Many never got the word. Officials called 3,703 people but only reached 1,050 via landlines and the cellphones of a few people who had registered their numbers with the state. 

That wasn’t good enough for state Rep. Larry Lambert.

Delawareans who live near the Croda chemical manufacturing plant and similar facilities “live with chronic anxiety of not if–but when–something else could happen,” Lambert says. He notes they also live with noxious smells every day and depressed real estate values. 

A 2022 law that he sponsored now requires the state, when facing such catastrophes, to use the federal wireless emergency alert system, which sends out “geographically targeted, text-like messages alerting [people] of imminent threats to safety in their area…regardless of whether people register their phones, live in the area or have phone numbers with a local area code.”

Lambert represents the Claymont area. The leak occurred on the Route 9 corridor from Wilmington to Delaware City. Those areas–plus Sussex County neighborhoods near chicken houses and poultry processing plants–are an uneasy mix of industries and homes. Residents are clamoring for environmental justice.

“We’d like them to be good neighbors,” says Dora Williams, a longtime resident of the Route 9 corridor and a participant in Delaware Concerned Residents for Environmental Justice and the New Castle Prevention Coalition. Route 9 between the Memorial Bridge and Wilmington is among the most densely industrialized areas in the state.

“We don’t want to move,” Williams says. “Our homes are not a step to a bigger house or a more advantageous investment. It’s our life’s work, and we want to leave it as part of our legacy to our kids.” 

Williams exemplifies that idea. She lives in her mother’s house and has nearby relatives whose homes have been in the family for generations. Referring to communities tainted by not-so-good neighbors, she adds, “Who wants to bequeath a legacy that no one can use?”

Defining the Problem

The term environmental justice was coined in 1982 by Benjamin Chavis as an extension of racial justice. The term acknowledges that a disproportionate number of minority and low-income people live in industrialized areas with little green space, heavy pollution, and other environmentally unfriendly conditions. “It is inextricably linked to environmental racism,” says Victor Perez, a University of Delaware associate professor of sociology and criminal justice who studies environmental justice in Delaware.

According to the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control, “Environmental justice is the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people, regardless of race, color, national origin or income, with respect to the development, implementation and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations and policies; and the equitable access to green spaces, climate resilience, public recreation opportunities and information and data on potential exposures to environmental hazards.”

DNREC in 2023 named Katera Moore as Delaware’s first environmental justice coordinator.

One aspect of environmental justice is cumulative impact, or the build-up of pollution in an area over time. Big polluters are often clustered, so their output is concentrated, and those areas are near low-income Black and Brown communities or, in the case of poultry producers and processors, predominantly Latino and other communities.

Ensuring environmental justice suggests that when considering permit applications for activities such as discharge of pollution into the land, air, or water, governments should assess not only the applicant but the overall situation, including existing pollution, in those “overburdened” or “disadvantaged” communities. New Jersey in 2023 adopted cumulative impact rules that the governor’s office called “the first in the nation.” 

Rep. Kendra Johnson of Wilmington in 2022 introduced a bill to require DNREC to consider cumulative impacts on overburdened areas for new facilities, expansions of existing facilities, and permit renewals of industrial and commercial operations. It never got out of committee. A revised bill was introduced in May 2024. Wilmington City Council in 2019 passed a similar resolution. 

“There’s something that’s called enough,” Williams says. “If harm is in the picture, put something in place that begins to heal.” 

Healing Can Be Hard

“The effects are lasting and very difficult to undo,” Perez says. One result is brownfields, land tainted by legacy contamination of polluters that have moved on. “When the jobs left the people who had the resources left as well,” he says, leaving concentrations of poverty, as well as land that must be remediated parcel by parcel. “Individuals can even feel anxiety growing food in their own yards, and in that sense they lack a full realization of the sovereignty of their spaces,” Perez says.

Another result is fenceline communities—housing or neighborhoods sited next to industrial polluters. “It informs every aspect of people’s lives,” he says. “When you live along Route 9, some residents have told me, you make sure your water bottle is covered while waiting at the bus stop for work. And you wear a mask, because otherwise you will drink grittiness. You don’t chew gum at the bus stop because the dirt will get into the gum.”

In 2004, 250 residents of Eden Park and Hamilton Park–two communities south of Wilmington with a single civic association but divided by I-495–filed what Perez called a “close to unprecedented” suit to force several dozen local companies to buy them out.  

“We sued that either you move your industries or move us,” civic association president Louis McDuffy told Delaware Public Media in 2018. “Most plaintiffs received a check for property damages, but a buyout did not occur because the neighborhoods did not achieve the required consensus.”

The infrastructure in overburdened communities may also be unhealthy. Excessive truck traffic elevates noise and tailpipe pollution, antiquated and overflowing sewer systems can fail, and basements and roadways can flood regularly during storms and high tides, even on sunny days. The problem is worsened by sea level rise.

By the Numbers

Delaware’s Coastal Management Program in 2004 began working on such issues in the historically Black neighborhood of Southbridge in Wilmington, where residents often use sandbags to protect their homes from flooding. Two decades and $26 million later, the 30-acre Southbridge Wilmington Wetlands Park opened in September 2023. The project restored the wetlands, improved stormwater management to relieve chronic flooding in the neighborhood, and created recreational opportunities. “The project is enhancing resiliency, restoring freshwater tidal exchange, filtering polluted runoff, and improving the overall habitat for diverse wildlife species,” according to the federal Office for Coastal Management.

“This is what environmental justice looks like,” U.S Senator Chris Coons of Delaware said about it on Instagram.

The federal government divides Delaware into 218 census tracts and maps about 40 disadvantaged census tracts that include most of Wilmington and Dover as well as areas near Ellendale, Elsmere, Georgetown, Leipsic, Milford, New Castle, Newark, and Newport. But census data doesn’t always add up to an accurate picture, which can leave some overburdened areas unaccounted for or obscure demographic shifts in race, income, and property values in officially designated disadvantaged tracts.

To ensure that all overburdened communities are identified, some stakeholders are drilling down to smaller census blocks–Delaware has 24,115 of them within its 218 census tracts–to analyze data on poverty, unemployment, language, and more.

The federal Environmental Protection Agency uses a dozen factors for that mapping, including social and economic disadvantages and environmental hazards. But the mapping “may obscure what’s happening,” Perez says.

For instance, Tract 19.2 combines lower-income Southbridge, a well-established historically Black community, with Christina Landing and, more recently, newly redeveloped parcels that include market-rate rentals on the eastern side of the Christina River, across from the burgeoning Wilmington Riverfront. The presence of middle-class residents in the riverfront portion of 19.2 skews the picture on income and poverty.

Census Tract 19.02 is officially designated as a disadvantaged community using Justice 40 metrics, yet comparisons across census blocks can reveal important differences in income and wealth. Southbridge is split by these census blocks. The one to the west houses both a portion of Southbridge and Christina Landing. On paper, this can muddle how we may interpret the overall needs and economic well-being of the tract and separate block groups, comparatively.

The wetlands park sits just to the west of the census blocks’ boundary, between Southbridge and most of the western part of South Wilmington. It could become a barrier of sorts, though its central path connects Southbridge to planned redevelopment on South Market Street (the Riverfront East). By contrast, there is evidence that suggests this type of greening and nearby development could encourage gentrification, which could possibly displace longtime area residents in coming decades.

There are many changes already happening–and still coming–to South Wilmington, including brownfield cleanup and development of market-rate housing. “In 10 years, Southbridge will be a very different community,” says Perez, referring to various possibilities that include equitable reinvestment in the community or market forces increasing property values and cost of living. The potential for some cost-burdened longtime residents to be priced out is real and a concern for many, but it isn’t the only possible future for the community.

The changes in South Wilmington more broadly will require efforts to alleviate burdens of increased cost of living and enhance resilience to rapidly shifting economics in the area. The entire tract is ripe to change in significant ways, and the way those changes may unfold in Southbridge depends on a myriad of factors, including an emphasis on creating mechanisms to keep its long history, heritage, and culture in place. An emphasis on equitable benefits of the redevelopment is crucial. Employing policies like rent stabilization, investment in local business, increasing homeownership, and increasing access to affordable housing is of the utmost importance.  

Help From the Bezos Earth Fund

One significant action intended to promote environmental justice in Delaware comes from the Bezos Earth Fund, which has committed $400 million to improving access to urban green spaces, including $5.5 million announced in 2023 for projects in New Castle County, one of five pilot areas nationwide. There are seven grants for Delaware projects. They include:

• $3 million for the New Castle Prevention Coalition to restore eight parks spanning 300 acres in the Route 9 area. It includes “enhancement of community gardens, native plant gardens, tree canopy for reduced heat and pollution, recreational nature trails with safety lighting and educational exhibits.”

• $1.5 million for the Claymont Coalition for Environmental Justice, the Claymont Community Coalition, and the National Wildlife Federation to develop a riverfront park on the site of the old steel plant. Plans for Electric Arc Park call for a marina, an amphitheater and four miles of trails.

• $500,000 for the Delaware Community Foundation to partner with the University of Delaware and the Delaware Division of Public Health to create a liaison between community groups and government officials on urban greening and to plan ways to go green in Wilmington and Claymont.


A week after his inauguration in 2021, President Joe Biden issued an executive order that calls for, among other things, 40 percent of the benefits of climate-change and clean-energy federal programs reaching disadvantaged communities.

In a 2022 speech in Massachusetts, Biden contrasted his memories of growing up next door to the petroleum refineries near Claymont with a vision for a clean-energy future. He recalled his mother clearing “the oil slick” and other pollutants off the windshield before driving him to school. “That’s why I and so damned many other people I grew up [with] have cancer and why…for the longest time, Delaware had the highest cancer rate in the nation.…We’re going to build a different future….with clean energy, good-paying jobs.”

Lambert told a similar story at a Unitarian Universalist Society of Mill Creek social justice series last winter. The fathers of his four closest childhood friends all had persistent coughs, he said. Three died before they were 52.

Biden followed up his executive order with the Justice40 Initiative. In 2021, Delaware became the first state to set up a legislative committee to carry out the initiative.

“Environmental Justice for Delaware,” a 2017 report, compared Greenville (where Biden now lives) to Belvedere, Cedar Heights, Dunleith, Marshallton, Newport, Oakmont and Southbridge. The seven latter communities have higher a percentage of people of color and/or poverty levels and are near “major polluting industrial sources as well as facilities that use large quantities of toxic, flammable or explosive chemicals.”

The report found “substantially higher cancer risks and respiratory hazard indices from toxic air pollution” in the seven communities. “Importantly, these risk estimates do not consider additional exposure pathways such as ingestion of toxic chemicals from foods or water or the breathing toxic air pollution from indoor sources, nor do they take into account the potential for combined impacts from exposure to multiple chemicals.”

A Report Recommends Seven Actions

The “Environmental Justice for Delaware”  report © includes the Union of Concerned Scientists, the Environmental Justice Health Alliance, Delaware Concerned Residents for Environmental Justice, Community Housing and Empowerment Connections Inc,. and Coming Clean. The report called for seven actions: 

  • Require chemical facilities to use safer chemicals and technologies. 
  • Ensure that chemical facilities share information and their emergency response plans with nearby communities. 
  • Require large chemical facilities to continuously monitor and publicly report their fenceline-area emissions and health hazards. 
  • Prevent the construction of new or expanded chemical facilities near homes and schools and, conversely, the siting of new homes and schools near dangerous chemical plants. 
  • Require that publicly accessible, comprehensive health-impact assessments and mitigation plans be conducted to evaluate the cumulative impact of hazardous chemical exposures on nearby communities. 
  • Strengthen the enforcement of existing environmental and workplace health and safety regulations. 
  • Adopt and enforce strict motor vehicle emissions standards and limit heavy-duty truck traffic and idling in residential areas.

“It’s time now for concrete action to protect people for generations to come,” the Union of Concerned Scientists, which hosts that report, writes elsewhere on its site.

About the Author: Ken Mammarella is a Delaware native and longtime journalist who in his spare time likes to explore the terrain by bike.

Learn more

Delaware Concerned Residents for Environmental Justice

New Castle Prevention Coalition

Environmental Justice at DNREC https://dnrec.delaware.gov/environmental-justice/ 

Wilmington City Council resolution on cumulative impact https://www.wilmingtoncitycouncil.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/09/Res.-19-065-4713-Rev.-1-SLAG-Grinding-Disapproval-Cumulative-Impact-Studies.pdf 

New Wetland Park in Delaware Solves Decades of Flooding Issues https://coast.noaa.gov/states/stories/southbridge-wetlands.html 

Climate and Economic Justice Screening Tool https://screeningtool.geoplatform.gov/en#9.87/39.1551/-75.5196 

Bezos Earth Fund Announces $5.5 Million for Urban Green Spaces in Underserved Wilmington Communities https://www.bezosearthfund.org/news-and-insights/bezos-earth-fund-announces-5-5-million-for-urban-green-spaces-in-underserved-wilmington-communities 

Executive Order on Tackling the Climate Crisis at Home and Abroad https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/presidential-actions/2021/01/27/executive-order-on-tackling-the-climate-crisis-at-home-and-abroad/ 

Justice40 https://www.whitehouse.gov/environmentaljustice/justice40/#:~:text=What%20is%20the%20Justice40%20Initiative,underserved,%20and%20overburdened%20by%20pollution Environmental Justice for Delaware https://www.ucsusa.org/sites/default/files/attach/2017/10/ej-for-de-report-ucs-2017.pdf