Column: Watershed Superfund sites offer important lessons to learn to curb potential future pollution
Riverkeeper's note: This column was written as the second in a two-part story package about a Superfund site in Williamsport. Check out the first post with details of this site by clicking here.
According to philosopher George Santayana: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
That is one of the major fears of Katie Caputo, who recently stumbled onto information about a Superfund pollution site in Williamsport that happened decades ago and very few people remember today.
“More than 30 years had passed since the remedial action plan took effect and the decades seem to have eroded common knowledge of the site,” she shared after researching about AVCO Lycoming, a site where dangerous levels of potentially carcinogenic solvents have infiltrated the groundwater.
The United States Environmental Protection Agency used provisions of the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA) to deem the situation deserves “Superfund” designation and a slew of different clean-up efforts have ensued over the past 25 years.
But it is unlikely the groundwater under the site will ever be suitable for human consumption, and agencies are carefully watching that the pollutants don’t make their way into the nearby Lycoming Creek or West Branch of the Susquehanna River.
Statewide, there are 126 Superfund sites scored high enough for priority attention … mostly legacy cases where businesses or other entities left a stain of pollution so bad that federal assistance was required to help mop up the mess.
Among those in the Middle Susquehanna watershed (with links back to the designated EPA webpage for more details):
What can be learned by researching these cases that can help us red flag potential Superfund sites before they happen and avoid decades of cleanup that may never fully restore the watershed?
I notice two trends – two indicators, if you will – of potential Superfund situations.
The first is a lack of knowledge of, experience with and awareness about the potentially dangerous chemicals that a business may be utilizing.
“Looking back to the 1970s, and in some cases, earlier, certain companies were working to create compounds they saw as beneficial to people in general, such as those created to make nonstick frying pans or foams to fight fires,” said Walt Nicholson, retired waterway expert with decades of experience at the Williamsport Municipal Water Authority and one of the first people to find traces of contaminants from the AVCO Lycoming Superfund site in the 1980s. “However, some of these companies didn’t adequately study the potentially negative impacts of those. Are they toxic? Will they persist in the environment? Will they build up in the food chains? Will they move in groundwater and contaminate drinking water eventually?”
Companies with a lack of proven track record with the potentially hazardous compounds they are using should trigger plenty of red flags about their long-term impact.
This is why I personally have serious concern about the Encina “plastics recycling” plant proposed to be built along the North Branch of the Susquehanna River above Northumberland.
During a conversation with their spokesperson a few months back, it became apparent that Encina has no real direct track record of the chemical process they have in mind at the scale they are proposing in our watershed. They are an out-of-state company with no real local ties that wants to use our river and our proximity to major urbanized areas in Philly, NYC, Pittsburgh and Baltimore to make a profit while handling compounds that carry a laundry list of health concerns.
One of which, the chief catalyst for the chemical reaction they plan to use, is a known carcinogenic when in fibrous form. While, in theory, the catalyst should be used up during such a reaction, there is no steadfast data to show how much may escape the process and wind up in our environment.
The compound they would extract from their process, BTX/P, is mainly a combination of benzene (can cause anemia, decrease in blood platelets and an increase in cancer) along with xylene, tuloene and propylene (all of which have been linked to nervous damage/dysfunction, potential liver and kidney damage and birth defects).
The site is anticipated to draw two million gallons of water per day from the Susquehanna River, returning two-thirds of that after a variety of uses, including the cleaning of plastic materials. The site is also within the 100-year floodplain of the river.
Even beyond the lack of proven track record that Encina itself has with this sort of venture, there really is no long-standing precedent for any company to sustain a safe “chemical recycling” operation on this sort of scale while producing commercially reusable product.
Considering all the unknowns, this venture feels like another Superfund-in-the-making site if given the green light to proceed.
The other variable that can provide a red flag for potential large-scale pollution concern is lack of transparency by companies that know they have something to hide which may negatively impact the environment.
An example of this comes from the fracking industry, which is allowed to hide certain chemicals used to frack natural gas behind the same “trade secrets” verbiage that protects companies like Coca-Cola and Kentucky Fried Chicken from having to share their recipes.
That aspect of the law has become controversial within Pennsylvania’s medical community. Act 13 requires physicians to sign a non-disclosure form in order to see a full list of the chemicals (including trade secrets) for the purpose of treating patients. But some doctors say language in the law prohibits them from sharing that information with their patients and with other doctors.
Is it really a case where fracking companies are concerned about their competitors learning what cocktail of chemicals they use to frack gas, or does hiding this potentially toxic blend behind the “trade secrets” blanket function more as a veiled attempt to cloud transparency and deter lawsuits they know are otherwise inevitable?
Ultimately, the Superfund program has done a good job of helping address major pollution issues from decades past and raising awareness of what toxic threats exist in our local communities. That awareness and the safeguards developed from it help reduce the odds of new pollution issues that may someday require Superfund intervention.
However, there is still much we can learn from these cases, if nothing else as a reminder that some of the large-scale industrial-sparked pollution cases can happen anywhere.
As Katie Caputo demonstrated in this case, it is OK to ask questions, to follow your curiosity when things seem out of place or when a concerning headline pops up in your Google search browser.
If you have concerns about a situation in your community, feel free to reach out to the Middle Susquehanna Riverkeeper Association at email@example.com or 570-768-6300 and we can help look into things.
John Zaktansky is an award-winning journalist and avid promoter of the outdoors who loves camping, kayaking, fishing and hunting with the family.