On the Delaware River, between Trenton and Pennsylvania’s southern border, 11 industrial plants have released toxic chemicals into the water in legally permitted amounts over the last five years, according to reports they must file to federal officials.
Of the 62 manufacturers, petroleum facilities and chemical makers within a mile of the river’s edges, two have reported releasing millions of pounds of toxic discharges — again, within legal limits, according to an analysis of U.S. Environmental Protection Agency records.
The Inquirer analyzed the EPA’s Toxic Release Inventory records after last month’s accidental spill of more than 8,100 gallons of hazardous chemicals from a Bucks County plant to examine activity on the water that potentially imperils Philadelphia drinking water.
The records do not provide a full picture, as the reports rely on voluntary compliance when a company releases toxins; also, dozens of facilities are too small to have to file these reports with the EPA about discharges into the river, which is a major thruway for ships carrying petroleum products and other chemicals that can spill into the Delaware.
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“We are vulnerable,” says Charles Haas, a Drexel University professor and water-quality expert. “We have a drinking water source on a highly navigable river.”
Six of 11 industrial sites that reported toxic discharges within the last five years have released carcinogens or slow-degrading bioaccumulative toxic chemicals, according to the EPA’s database.
However, only two facilities — the PBF Energy refinery in Paulsboro, Gloucester County, and the Monroe Energy refinery in Trainer, Delaware County — accounted for nearly all of the chemicals discharged. Together, they account for 4.4 million pounds of toxic chemicals emptied into the river since 2017.
Those releases were all within legal thresholds. Their facilities sit downstream of Philadelphia’s drinking water intakes.
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A PBF Energy spokesperson could not be reached for comment. Michael Gattuso, a spokesperson for Monroe Energy LLC, said, “EPA and DEP set limits to protect human health and the environment and it’s our responsibility to operate in accordance to those limits.”
Gattuso noted the company’s discharges “are permitted in accordance with local, state and federal environmental requirements,” and added, “Striving for environmental excellence is one of our core values and we work diligently every day to minimize our environmental footprint and will continue to do so.”
River is a highway
For days, Philadelphia officials advised residents to consider buying bottled water after an overhead pipe burst at the Trinseo Altuglas chemical plant in Bristol, sending more than 8,100 gallons of an acrylic latex polymer solution into a containment area that overflowed into the Delaware River.
The discharge caused panic in Philadelphia when residents feared it would reach the city’s Baxter water treatment plant in Torresdale. However, no traces of the chemical compounds were ever found, according to city tests. The city notified residents Tuesday that the threat had passed.
Regardless, ethyl acrylate, methyl methacrylate, butyl acrylate, and Styrene all made their way during the spill down the river the Philadelphia Water Department uses to supply drinking water for much of the city as well as Lower Bucks County. Butyl acrylate was one of the chemicals released in the East Palestine, Ohio, train derailment in February that caused a fire and evacuation of 1,500 residents.
The Bristol plant, through various owners over the years, has had a history of problems — including at least four recent contaminations.
Data show that other facilities along the river have intentionally released anywhere from just a few pounds to more than 1,000 pounds during manufacturing and other operations. Monroe Energy’s Trainer Refinery, just off the river in Delaware County, reported releasing 1,873 pounds of carcinogenic or persistent bioaccumulative toxic (PBT) chemicals over the last five years without violating federal limits.
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Factories aren’t the only threat to the environment. In November 2004, the 750-foot tanker Athos I, was carrying 13 million gallons of crude oil when it struck a submerged anchor while approaching a refinery. The ship’s hull breached and spilled 263,000 gallons of its payload into the river.
All week, Maya van Rossum, CEO of the Delaware Riverkeeper Network, has been working knee deep in water near Trinseo’s plant to assess wildlife in the area. She sees industry that lines the river as a serious threat.
“They present an ongoing significant danger because of the number of facilities that very legally discharge pollution into the river and its tributaries,” van Rossum said.
Under the TRI program, certain facilities are required to self-report toxic chemicals they release that could pose a threat to human health and the environment. A release means a chemical is emitted to the air or water, or disposed of on land. The Inquirer focused its analysis to water releases.
Chemicals covered by TRI are those that cause cancer or other chronic and significant health effects, as well as pose a threat to the environment. There are 770 individual chemicals and 33 chemical categories covered under TRI. Any facility that makes, processes, or uses the chemicals in certain amounts above certain levels must submit an annual report for each chemical.
Generally, larger facilities involved in manufacturing, metal mining, electric power generation, chemical manufacturing, and hazardous waste treatment must report to TRI, so not all industry is covered by the program.
As testament to its industrial legacy, the entire Philadelphia metro area, which includes Camden and Wilmington, has 266 facilities in the TRI program. Collectively, they released 1.6 million pounds of toxic discharges into the air and 6.8 million pounds into water over the last five years of reports.
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The EPA cautions that large releases do not necessarily mean cause for concern. Neither do small releases mean there is no risk. Many facilities are also subject to permits and standards from state agencies such as the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection. The limits imposed by the federal Clean Air and Clean Water Acts, as well as state limits, are intended to prevent potential health and environmental risks.
The Delaware River is actually far cleaner than it was in the 1960s and 1970s, before the Clean Water Act made it illegal to discharge pollutants into waterways without a permit. Before that, no agency was keeping track and the river’s dissolved oxygen — a key measure of water health — had dropped to near zero, creating an infamous dead zone for aquatic life. Regulation has helped restore its oxygen to healthier levels.
Haas, the Drexel water-quality expert, said the region depends on the state’s systems for discharge permits, which he said work well. Each time a facility opens, it must obtain approval of any discharges. The process is open to the public for comment.
In addition, the EPA sets limits for 90 contaminants in drinking water. The agency keeps a list of chemicals or microbes not currently subject to standards but known to appear in public water systems. The EPA puts those through a public process to determine if standards should be set for any.
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