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Companies have legally dumped millions of pounds of toxic chemicals into the Delaware River in the past five years, according to reports from 62 manufacturers, petroleum facilities, and chemical makers. The Inquirer analyzed the EPA’s Toxic Release Inventory (TRI) records after last Friday’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. However, the records only provide a partial picture as dozens of facilities are too small to have to file reports about discharges into the river. The EPA’s Toxic Release Inventory (TRI) program requires certain facilities to self-report toxic chemicals they release that could pose a threat to human health and the environment.
These chemicals include those that cause cancer or other chronic and significant health effects, as well as pose a threat to the environment. Despite the limitations of the TRI, the data analyzed by The Inquirer is still concerning. Between Trenton and Pennsylvania’s southern border, 11 industrial plants have legally released toxic chemicals into the Delaware River in the last five years. Six of those industrial sites released carcinogens or slow-degrading bioaccumulative toxic (PBT) chemicals, and two facilities, the PBF Energy refinery in Paulsboro and the Monroe Energy refinery in Trainer, accounted for nearly all of the 4.4 million pounds of toxic chemicals dumped into the river since 2017. Although the facilities have stayed within legal limits, their discharges still pose a risk to human and environmental health. Moreover, the potential for spills and leaks is high on the Delaware River, which is a major throughway for ships carrying petroleum products and other chemicals. The river’s history is not free of such environmental catastrophes. In 2004, a 750-foot tanker carrying 13 million gallons of crude oil struck a submerged anchor and spilled 263,000 gallons into the Delaware River.
The tragedy damaged the water quality and wildlife of the river, showing how one accident could have devastating consequences. Furthermore, reports show that the Bristol plant, through various owners over the years, has had a history of problems — including at least four recent contaminations. The Delaware River is a source of drinking water for Philadelphia and the surrounding area, and the number of facilities that release toxins into the river increases the vulnerability of the area.
The EPA sets limits for 90 contaminants in drinking water, but thousands of chemical compounds are not tracked by regulators, and the industry produces new ones each year. The responsibility for obtaining discharge permits falls on the state’s systems, which Professor Charles Haas of Drexel University says work well. However, the public also has the power to comment on and influence the discharge permits each facility obtains. To reduce the amount of toxic chemicals released into the Delaware River, companies and regulatory bodies need to work together to prevent accidental spills, leaks and deliberate discharges.
The public has a role to play too, by monitoring the facilities operating near the river and commenting on their discharge permits. We need to be aware of the potential harm that could result from the chemical compounds that are not currently being tracked, and push for greater regulation and enforcement in the industry. It is time for companies to take responsibility for their actions and work towards safer, cleaner practices for the sake of our environment and health.
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