Trib investigation reveals gaping holes in water oversight
A chemical plant holding a “minor” stormwater discharge permit caused a major drinking water disaster in Charleston, W.Va., in February.
That incident raises questions about risks from thousands of industrial chemicals used daily along waterways such as the Ohio River — the source of drinking water for more than 5 million people from Pittsburgh to Cairo, Ill.
Freedom Industries' Etowah River Terminal plant in Charleston spilled more than 7,000 gallons of a coal-cleaning chemical cocktail into the Elk River, a tributary that eventually flows into the Ohio River in West Virginia.
The foamy slick — smelling of licorice and mint — forced the West Virginia American Water Co. plant and other water facilities serving more than 300,000 residents to shut down while workers flushed out filters and pipes.
A 2½-month investigation by the Tribune-Review found that Pennsylvania state inspectors failed to examine more than 45 percent of the 4,075 industrial plants, refineries, mines, sewage treatment plants and other facilities with permits to discharge into the Ohio River watershed over the past five years.
The Environmental Protection Agency requires state inspections every five years on “minor” discharge permits and every two years on “major” permits; it is moving toward annual inspections on the latter.
In addition, state Department of Environmental Protection inspectors, who oversee all or parts of the 24 Pennsylvania counties in the Ohio's watershed, have never visited 796 of those sites, department records show.
Myron Arnowitt, the statewide director of Clean Water Action, said Pennsylvania lawmakers need to boost water pollution regulations and funding to prepare for a possible disaster here.
“It's not a question of ‘if,' it's only a question now of ‘when,' ” Arnowitt said. “What happened along the Elk River should've been a wake-up call for Pennsylvania.”
DEP counters that its inspectors have targeted facilities with huge vats of toxic substances and are catching up on smaller sites.
“Inspections, while necessary and an important responsibility of the department, are only part of the equation for ensuring our waterways are safe,” said DEP spokeswoman Morgan Wagner. “DEP is confident in the strong regulations and preventative measures we have implemented for all industries to ensure that pollution doesn't work its way into our water resources in the first place.”
The Trib collected and analyzed tens of thousands of state and federal government records involving water discharge permits and their oversight in the Ohio River watershed. The newspaper's examination found:
•Inconsistent oversight: Of the 796 places the DEP never visited, 352 are facilities with industrial or livestock waste, stormwater potentially containing industrial pollutants, and pesticides.
• More spills: In 2012, the U.S. Coast Guard documented 76 incidents that led to substances illegally entering the Ohio or its tributaries. Last year, the number increased to 98 spills.
• Persistent scofflaws: DEP inspectors found a record 935 water pollution violations at 525 facilities in 2013 — three times as many as in 2008. Over that five-year span, DEP reached settlements totaling $9.4 million in fines against 1,068 sites within the watershed. DEP is limited to a $10,000 per day levy on a facility, but federal regulators can shutter a site if it continues to pollute.
• Budget cuts: Pennsylvania lawmakers earmarked $127.7 million in fiscal 2013 for DEP, 63 percent less than they budgeted in fiscal 2000.
State regulators told the Trib they do the best with resources they have. The agency's 45 inspectors statewide tallied a record 3,134 inspections in 2013, nearly as many as the two previous years combined.
Federal regulators since 2007 have required that they inspect large facilities every two years; last year DEP got to all but one. Based on the 187 visits to facilities in January, and with warmer months ahead, DEP is on pace to intensify visits to large and small sites in 2014.
“We have the regulatory package we have today to protect our water only because citizens then demanded it,” said Cindy Adams Dunn, president of the environmental nonprofit PennFuture and a former official with the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.
“But, in reality, we must keep beating the drums on the old pollution issues while confronting new challenges, like gas frackers, because so many Pennsylvanians rely on that water for drinking.”
The largest concentration of Ohio River water consumers lives in Allegheny County, which recorded half of all the chemical spills tabulated by the Coast Guard last year and was the scene of one of the nation's worst drinking water disasters nearly three decades ago.
On Jan. 2, 1988, in Jefferson Hills, an Ashland Oil storage tank with 3.8 million gallons of diesel fuel collapsed. About 800,000 gallons breached an earthen dike ringing the site and entered the Monongahela River, globbing into a black underwater sludge that eventually entered the Ohio River.
Meandering 600 miles downstream, the Ashland slick fouled drinking water supplies for several Pittsburgh suburbs and killed thousands of fish and ducks, according to the EPA.
Although treatment plants can close intake valves until the pollution moves downriver, ice jammed devices at the plant in Steubenville, Ohio, forcing residents there and in nearby towns to rely for days on bottled water.
Pittsburgh residents escaped the fiasco because they rely on water drawn from the Allegheny River.
“We have reduced our risk significantly since the 1988 incident, largely because of the preventative measures we have taken as a department since,” said DEP's Morgan.
She said many chemical and storage tanks in Pennsylvania are small and do not contain extremely hazardous materials.
“The frequency of inspections is governed by the size and content of the storage tank. Larger tanks receive more frequent inspections, as they have the largest potential to cause environmental harm,” Morgan said.
During the past 10 years, Shenango Inc.'s coke battery on Neville Island has been linked to 22 spills into the Ohio River involving diesel fuel, oil, tar and ammonia, a poisonous byproduct of coke manufacturing. Since 1994, DEP forced the company into nine consent decrees and court orders linked to the pollution.
Shenango's owners, Michigan-based electric utility DTE Energy, insist they've improved processes to prevent water pollution. After purchasing the Neville Island plant six years ago, DTE earmarked up to $25 million for on-site water treatment to prevent chemicals from reaching the river and to comply with water rules.
Operating under a consent decree with DEP, Shenango erected temporary water pollution controls but is awaiting construction permits from the agency to complete the permanent improvements.
“Largely, we thought it was the right thing to do,” said plant manager Chris Kiesling.
Carl Prine is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7826.