Monthly Archives: June 2020

How I set myself up #4…..making a farce of historic preservation


Delaware is always a tough place for any sort of public interest advocacy not funded and controlled by big-money interests.  This can be said equally of environmental concerns or social justice concerns, and there are good reasons why people of an activist bent tend to leave the state for friendlier turf.  There simply is not a support system for independent advocacy.  (Most of Green Delaware’s financial support has come from the Environmental Endowment for New Jersey.)  Likewise, there is little support for independent voices in the Delaware General Assembly or otherwise.  This has consequences:  Here is an example of something Green Delaware no longer has the ability fight as we once would have:

Delaware has a visionary law intended to keep polluting industry out of the “Coastal Zone.”  But enforcement of the Coastal Zone Act has collapsed entirely under former governor Jack Markell and present governor John Carney.  Thus, in 2015 Delaware officials issued Croda (the company) a Coastal Zone permit to make ethylene oxide at Atlas Point in the Coastal Zone, near the Delaware Memorial Bridge.  Reportedly they also gave Croda 2.9 million dollars to encourage the company to build the facility.  Ethylene oxide is toxic and explosive, and is also a powerful human carcinogen.  The manufacturing process for it is also very dangerous.  It’s exactly the sort of activity intended to be kept out of the Coastal Zone by the original 1970 Act. 

On Nov. 25, 2018, only a few months after the process started up, a reported 2700 pounds of ethylene oxide and related chemicals leaked suddenly.  The Delaware Memorial Bridge was closed for hours.  Only by good fortune, there was no explosion.  Croda was fined by the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration for lack of proper inspection, failure to train workers adequately, and other failures contributing to the leak.  Warning sirens were installed.   Delaware officials issued misleading statements ignoring or downplaying the cancer risk and injury to workers.  Less than one year later, Delaware officials gave Croda permission to re-open with few changes.

Green Delaware would have fought this every step of the way,  Whether we would have been able to stop the project is unknown, but we would have tried and made our concerns known to the public at large.  The reality is that Delaware no longer has an effective system of environmental control.   And, of course, with trump in office federal agencies aren’t applying any pressure.

Health and the Covid-19 pandemic

The picture varies in different parts of the country and the world, but the pandemic isn’t over and is expanding in many places.  The death rate per 100,000 attributed to Covid-19 in different US states varies from 1 in Hawaii to 160 in New York State, but the tatistics are not necessarily uniform and reliable.  For what it’s worth, as of June 22nd the rates for Delaware and surrounding states are DE: 45, PA: 50, MD:51, DC: 76, and NJ: 146.  Given Delaware’s overall poor record in public health these numbers are a bit surprising.  They are about double the death rate in Minnesota.

A good brief summary of the national situation and scientific developments is put out daily by retired professor Marie Schwab Miller.  Recommended.

The basic message is to stay away from other people as much as possible and wear a mask.

Sadly, many Republican officeholders, aided by right-wing propaganda shops like the Caesar Rodney Institute, are encouraging people NOT to take precautions, and this will lead to thousands of additional and unnecessary deaths.

Making a mockery of historic preservation

It’s worth considering why the opposition to preserving our cultural heritage is as strong as the opposition to preserving our environment.  In many cases it may just be a matter of interference with developers’ profits.  It may often be that resources are lacking.  But a factor I was unaware of when I got involved with the house in Port Penn is that “historic preservation” is a rich person’s hobby, not only because it is expensive but because it seems to appeal to people with right-wing political opinions.  I do suspect that many if not most “preservation” supporters would vote for trump, give an award to “Pete” DuPont, and so on.  They would naturally tend to hate Green Delaware.  Wish I’d known in advance.

Consider “Preservation Delaware.”  This org has devoted itself primarily to a Dupont (spelling varies) family mansion, Gibraltar, which it owns and has sought public funds for repair of.  The property is in a dilapidated condition, but strangely enough PD is not harassed by citations for code violations.  When we were beginning work on the house in Port Penn, PD circulated word that it would not assist us due to disapproval of Green Delaware’s advocacy work.  The original staff person at PD, Dee Durham, is now a member of the New Castle County Council.

Organizations that have NOT supported us include Preservation Delaware, the Port Penn Area Historical Society, The Delaware Division of Historical and Cultural Affairs (which includes the “State Historic Preservation Office”) DelawareWild Lands ( Itself involved in the demolition of historic properties), the University of Delaware Center for Historic Architecture and Design (which received a grant to “document” my house but failed to establish when it was built and by whom), the New Castle County “preservation planner,” and others.  None have ever asked what they might do to help us make the project a success.  Many seem to actively want us to fail.  (Partial exception for Dan Griffith, before he retired as director of the Div. of Historical and Cultural Affairs. he seemed like a decent guy, and somewhat helpful.)

But the biggest rat in the woodpile is always New Castle County.  Everybody seems afraid of the County., even the General Assembly. Upcoming when my stomach can handle it.

Primer:  Evil in a small place–harassment and selective prosecution by New Castle County (Ten years ago.)

Recent previous writings:

How I sent myself up to be driven out of Delaware #1

How I set myself up, #2

How I set mself up to be driven out, #3

By all means protect yourself from the Covid-19 pandemic.

Alan Muller

Commentary: Journalism is a dangerous profession

[As published in the Delaware State News.]

The Committee to Protect Journalists reports that 1,370 journalists were killed between 1992 and 2020. Many hundreds more were beaten or imprisoned.

It is the duty of reporters to go where authorities do not want them to be and where there is danger and disorder. It is their duty to ask questions and report facts that powerful people would sometimes prefer not to answer or have reported. Sometimes, their management backs them up, sometimes not.

Many of us probably want to believe that this doesn’t happen in the United States. But nationwide protests beginning with the police murder of a citizen in Minneapolis have revealed a widespread pattern of attacks on reporters and support staff. (Just do a search for “attacks on reporters.”)

Many of these appear to be targeted attacks, reflecting “law enforcement” hostility toward the media. reports, “As of Monday morning, there had been at least 90 police attacks against U.S. journalists covering the protests.”

On May 29, a CNN reporter in Minneapolis was arrested on camera although his behavior and professionalism appeared impeccable. Later, Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz apologized repeatedly and with seeming sincerity.

However, attacks on reporters have continued in Minnesota and elsewhere. Has Gov. Walz issued any directives to the various police and National Guard forces under his control to respect the constitutional rights of reporters to report? Is he insincere in his statements? Or are the police forces out of effective control of civil authority?

It is, of course, no secret that Trump repeatedly attacks journalists individually and the profession of journalism as a whole. Reporting he doesn’t like is “fake news.” He says the media are the “enemy of the people.” At his press conferences, he shouts and rants in response to embarrassing questions. He incites hate and violence among his followers. And, shamefully, Trump seems to have a significant following among law enforcement personnel.

Certainly, the head of the Minneapolis police union is a big Trumper. So, part of the problem is Trump’s incitement, but this can’t be the whole story.

Reporters, if they do their work well, hold up mirrors for us to see ourselves as we really are. The racism, injustice and inhumanity prevailing in the United States is not pleasant to see. It feels as if the forces of darkness are trying to break the mirrors.

There is an image online of a bleeding reporter, Linda Tirado, shot in the eye with a rubber bullet in Minneapolis. It’s horrifying but we need to look at it and think.

Alan Muller is executive director of Green Delaware, a community-based organization working on environment, public health, and democracy/open government issues.

Update:  Since this was written Andre Lamar, a reporter for the Dover Post, has been arrested in Delaware under similar circumstances, as reported in Town Square Delaware.  Gov. John Carney later tweeted: “Reporters have a fundamental right to cover the demonstrations we’re seeing in Delaware and across our country. They should not be arrested for doing their jobs. That’s not acceptable.” But, as in Minnesota, the question remains of whether Carney will take measures to prevent this from happening again.

Police in Minnesota have been slashing the tires of reporters’ cars, as reported in Mother Jones and the Minneapolis Star-tribune.


How I set myself up to be driven out of Delaware #3

Give priority to you physical and mental health

  Note:  With the shutdown of the yahoogroups links and the (hopefully temporary) disappearance of, quite a few links to past documents are no longer working.  We are trying to get this fixed.

I previously wrote about “historic preservation” in the context of cultural resources vs natural resources.  My own thinking, essentially is that cultural resources (old houses and such are in this category) are valuable to connect us with out past and help us understand who and what we are.  The aren’t, however, as important to protect as natural resource such as clean air and water.

See “How I set myself up to be driven out of Delaware #2

Note that some of what I write here is universal, such as the health hazards in old buildings.  Other may be unique to the strange realities of Delaware.

Give priority to your health

Before going on, I want to be clear that nobody in their right mind should take on the personal stewardship of an historic property, if only because of the health hazards.  My own venture into this exposed me to lead, arsenic, mercury, asbestos, silica dust, soot, and things like 8 foot deep deposits of bat droppings.  Electrical hazards are common in old houses.  These hazards can be managed by professionals, but usually at a cost that isn’t realistic for a homeowner unless he or she is a one percenter.  I have little doubt that my health has been impacted.

There are very few protections.  I recall a call from an unhappy outreach worker at the Delaware Division of Public Health.  She wanted to do a presentation on safe management of lead hazards at a meeting of “Preservation Delaware” and was being made unwelcome.  I don’t recall how that turned out.

Especially, children should not live in old housing if it can possibly be avoided.  The younger we are, the more vulnerable we are to environmental hazards such as lead.  There is no safe level of lead and any amount impairs intelligence.  Anyone can see that our society needs all the intellect it can muster.

So, if you are tempted by an older property, unless you really know what you are about and have extensive resources, and don’t have kids, run, don’t walk, away.

A little background

I took on the “Stewart House” in Port Penn, Delaware, for a mix of reasons that seemed reasonable at the time.  The location was somewhat intermediate between Wilmington and Dover.  The “sweat equity” would be a form of savings account, and help me balance my life between desk work and physical activity.  I failed to anticipate many things, and it turned into an nightmare.

The house itself was likely the worst-looking property one could imagine.  Surrounded by rotting Victorian additions, a large rotting barn in the yard, the previous inhabitants had buried their trash and garbage in the yard….  No maintenance had been done for many years.   It was, to put it mildly, a mess.  It was, however, a  house with some significant history.  It was probably built in the middle 1700s.  (A group at the University of Delaware received a grant to “document” the house, but failed to establish when and by whom it was built.)  There is a story of a cannonball in one of the chimneys from a bombardment of the village by the British Royal Navy during the War of 1812. (I’ve never found it.)  The walls are solid brick, 15-18 inches thick–hundreds of thousands of bricks, possibly made on site.   One can look at the saw marks on wooden beams and see that some were sawn out by hand, some by a reciprocating sawmill (18th-19th century technology) and some with circular saw blades (late 19th-20th century technology. 

It was interesting to research some history and to think about the lives of people who had lived there.  Why, for instance, were the ceilings in the (presumably) servants quarters over the kitchen so low that a modern person couldn’t stand up straight?   There were remains of a gas lighting system using acetylene generated in a pit in the backyard.  There was no usable plumbing or electrical system, but there was a collapsing outhouse in the woods behind.

Initially, progress was good.  The rotting structures were removed and the house began to look more like it’s original form.  archeological digs were carried out–at my invitation–by staff of  the department of Natural Resource and Environmental Control.  Community people were generally welcoming and supportive.  We were on track to a successful project.  But I hadn’t reckoned on New Castle County, Delaware.

One of the peculiarities of Delaware is that there are no townships.  For most people, unless they live in a city or town, the first level of government is the county, which has “land use” authority, which includes “code enforcement.”  The counties exist primarily to service developers and are not very responsive to individual and neighborhood concerns.  Many see them as corrupt.  Port Penn, although it has existed as a community for several hundred years, is “unincorporated,” having no government of it’s own.

It had never occurred to me that, not having bothered the previous inhabitants of the house as it collapsed around them, that New Castle County would hound me for fixing it up.  But that’s how it went.

Background on “code enforcement:”  There exists a “property maintenance code.”  There also exists a long tradition of using “code enforcement” powers to harass activists.  Every property has code violations.  In a property with 250 years or so of deferred maintenance there are many.  So the County cited me for having cracked caulk in window sash.  For visitors parting on the grass.  For dozens of things, over and over again.    Fines reached thousands of dollars.

Why:  As spokesperson for Green Delaware I had often criticized New Castle County for servility to developers and failure to protect natural resources.  I ought to have realized–how dumb can I get?–that having an old house in new Castle County would leave me open to retaliation.

Item:  The “County Executive” of New Castle County was Tom Gordon, former Chief of County Police.  Gordon was indicted by the United States Attorney, as  was  his chief administrative officer, also a former chief of county police.  From Wikipedia: “Gordon was charged with corruption, racketeering, and mail fraud in May 2004. He and Sherry Freeberry were indicted by a grand jury for, among other things, ordering county employees to work on private political campaigns while on duty.”   After beating many but not all of the charges, Gordon was  re-elected County Executive.  Maybe this ought to tell you all you really need to know.  (Gordon has also claimed a close association with the Joe Biden “crime bills” that lead to mass incarceration & etc.)

Item:  Delaware has an archaic court system where relatively minor crimes–lots of traffic cases–are handled in “Justice of the Peace Courts,” or “Magistrate Courts.”  In these, the “judges” are usually not lawyers, and no records of the proceedings are kept.  The safety valve in this system is that people can have their cases transferred to real courts, and can have their cases reheard.  However, New Castle County code violation cases can’t be transferred and effectively can’t be appealed.  But it gets worse:  New Castle County complained to the state legislature that the Justice of the Peace courts were too lenient, not always doing to offenders exactly what county prosecutors wanted.  An investigating committee was set up, and the political pressure created a situation where the Justices of the Peace simply convicted and sentenced according to County demands.  Aside from the personal sense of harassment and helplessness, it was sickening to see old people and poor people fined in this way.  How did this help them maintain their properties?  More upcoming on the slimy relationship between county and state.

I’m going to stop here except to note–details later–that New Castle County now apparently simply demands “civil fines” from offenders, not taking them to court at all.  Maybe this is because the County can simply pocket the fines?

Gordon’s successor, Chris Coons (now a senator) was no better.  See

Evil in a small place�harassment and selective prosecution by New Castle County


Alert 626: Justice in Delaware: fined $3,751 for �property maintenance code� violations.


I though I had a pretty thick skin.  Advocating for environmental protection and open government in Delaware is no light duty.  I could deal with the General Assembly, the Capital Police, etc.  But  I  couldn’t deal with harassment in and about my own home.  Thuggish “inspectors” pounding on my door….  Every mail delivery bringing more demands and threats.  Abusive courts.  Emotionally and financially I could not handle it.  Maybe I should be stronger?  And life is supposed to be enjoyed, not just endured.  So I am very pleased to be in Minnesota, imperfect as that state also is.

So just imagine the trauma of being a person of color, never safe or secure.  Having to worry that every time your kid left the house, police might kill him.

I wish I had a reasonable path out of the uncompleted Stewart House project in Delaware.  I would happily promise never, ever, to set foot  in Delaware again.

Of course, none of this means that ordinary New Castle County employees are personally evil.  It’s “the system” that’s evil.

And again, give priority to your health, physical and mental.

More coming.

Alan Muller