S. Wilmington 34 percent brownfields by land area, DNREC raises awareness
Published: Monday, September 16, 2013
Updated: Wednesday, September 18, 2013 14:09
A young boy, seven or eight years old, walks down the sidewalk in South Wilmington. When he gets to the corner, a woman leans out of her window, calls him by name and tells him to look both ways before he crosses the street. He obliges, then continues down the sidewalk to the next corner. When he arrives, a different woman leans out of her window, calls him by name and tells him to look both ways before crossing the street. Again, he obliges, then continues to the next corner. When he arrives for the third time, a woman calls him by name out of her window, and again reminds him to look both ways before he crosses the street.
This is the story David Carter, former environmental manager of the Delaware Coastal Program for Delaware’s Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control, recalls when describing the tightly-knit community south of downtown Wilmington, known as Southbridge. The residential heart of South Wilmington, the people of Southbridge take pride in their cohesive neighborhood, where everyone knows and looks out for one another, Carter said. Separated from downtown Wilmington by the Christina River, the area is isolated and distinct from the rest of Wilmington, and to a certain extent, forgotten about by the rest of Wilmington.
Carter worked closely with the residents of Southbridge as part of the South Wilmington Special Area Management Program. SAMP was designed to address contaminated industrial waste sites, known as brownfields, within the community.
“It is the most complex and engaged community that I have ever worked with,” said Carter.
Carter said the residential area of Southbridge is surrounded by brownfields, as its proximity and access to the Delaware River has made it an ideal spot for various industries throughout the history of the city. The perimeter of the community, which is marked on three sides by the banks of the Christina River, is riddled with waste from oil industry, chemical companies, auto-salvage yards and a booming leather tanning industry in the 1800s, Carter said. He said toxic metals such as arsenic and mercury can be found in large concentrations in the area.
The state has been working in Southbridge since 2004 to help with the redevelopment and remediation of the brownfields around the community. A city-sponsored program identified 60 brownfield sites, according to SAMP’s South Wilmington Neighborhood Plan.
The plan states, “Brownfields raise environmental justice issues, due to the relatively high occurrence of adverse health conditions in South Wilmington.” Carter said this area-wide assessment is one of the more thorough documentations of brownfields that has been done in the region.
State programs provide some funding and incentive for development and cleanup of brownfield sites in South Wilmington. DNREC’s Susan Love, planner for DNREC’s Coastal Program, said one example of a site where contaminants have been addressed is a new Shoprite. The developers “capped” the brownfield site by covering it with asphalt, she said.
“If a willing landowner has an agreement with the state, there is funding available for a cleanup,” Love said. “But there are a lot of contaminated sites that will never be cleaned up because they’re wetlands.”
Capping the sites with asphalt or concrete traps contaminants, but contributes to flooding, which is a large problem for Southbridge as a result of its flat lowland nature, according to the Neighborhood Plan.
DNREC’s Special Area Management Program has helped raise awareness in Southbridge about environmental concerns. The SAMP put a particular emphasis on involving the community in its planning and execution. David Carter said he sees this as crucial to addressing the environmental issues facing the community, as DNREC alone does not have the capacity to address the brownfields single handedly.
However, the residents of South Wilmington and Southbridge in particular, have more pressing concerns than these environmental substances, Kevin Adkin, doctoral recipient at the university’s School of Public Policy, said.
The residents of South Wilmington are primarily lower income, Adkins said, with more than half of South Wilmington’s households earning less than half the median income for the region with one-fifth of households earning under the poverty line. The community is well-organized in its focus on immediate issues and around the time of the recent financial crisis, economic concerns became more pressing than environmental cleanup, he said.