The explosion at Philadelphia Energy Solutions raises questions about a substance -- which is also used at two nearby plants -- that is so toxic, a vapor cloud of it could travel for miles and cause blindness, serious burns, permanent injuries or death.
A class of toxic chemicals called PFAS were recently discovered in private water wells in Bucks County.
It came as a surprise because the homes are 15 miles away from the former military air bases bases in Bucks and Montgomery counties that have been at the epicenter of PFAS water contamination in the region.
In this episode of WHYY’s “The Why,” reporter Dana Bate explains why the problem is so difficult to address in Pennsylvania.
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Dover Air Force Base has been testing nearby water wells for contamination of a class of toxic chemicals called PFAS since 2014. Those tests found one contaminated well in 2016. After further tests, Air Force officials thought there were no more contaminated wells.
They were wrong.
New tests done last month showed four new wells east of the base had PFAS levels higher than the EPA’s standard of 70 parts per trillion.
“After coordination and talking with some of our other state and regulatory agencies, we decided that there was a need to do more sampling,” said base remedial project manager Joe Kowalski. “This is in a different area off Dover Air Force Base. These four impacted wells are all in the proximity of each other.”
The four contaminated wells provide water to five businesses in a shopping center, plus two homes and an office building. The Air Force is providing bottled water for those impacted by the contamination.
The contamination near DAFB and other similar facilities in Pennsylvania is believed to be connected to the use of firefighting foam. The PFAS chemicals can enter the bloodstream through drinking contaminated water. Once in the body, they have been linked to a range of health problems, such as certain cancers, thyroid dysfunction, and elevated cholesterol. They can also suppress a person’s immune system.
Dover has since switched its firefighting foam that’s supposed to be more environmentally friendly. Kowalski said the wells identified last month were likely contaminated prior to the changeover.
“Any time a contaminant gets in the groundwater, it only moves as fast as the groundwater, and that can take years to travel off base,” he said.
The state Division of Public Health says the businesses and residents who are affected should use the bottled water provided by the Air Force until a more permanent solution is put in place. The Air Force is also considering longer term remedies including digging new, deeper wells for the people and businesses affected. The Air Force is also considering connecting these customers to the city’s water supply or installing a whole home filtration system.
“These are all options that we are actively looking into right now on what the best way forward is,” Kowalksi said. “Our main focus right now is to make sure that these people are taken care of.”
In 2014, deeper wells that provide drinking water to the base via Tidewater Utilities were tested, but no PFAS were detected. State environmental officials say those wells draw from a “deep, confined aquifer.” People living in on-base housing are unaffected because their water comes from the city of Dover’s water utility.
Last year, an analysis by the Union of Concerned Scientists found DAFB had the fourth highest levels of PFAS for all US military sites. The group said Dover’s maximum PFAS levels were at 2.8 million parts per trillion. That’s 40,000 times higher than the EPA’s health advisory level of 70 parts per trillion for PFAS contamination.
There is some concern that these four wells may not be the only ones contaminated.
“We’re looking at if it makes sense to test other wells in the area. That’s ongoing in our discussions right now to see if that makes sense to do,” Kowalski said.
Delaware Sen. Tom Carper said the Department of Defense has not confronted this issue quickly enough.
“But as Dover residents know all too well, this is far from a new threat — and the Air Force’s actions this weekend represent only a tiny fraction of their long-term responsibilities,” Carper said in a statement. “DOD continues to advocate for weaker groundwater cleanup standards and downplay the extent of their cleanup liabilities. To make matters worse, we have an EPA that continues to drag its heels when it comes to PFAS.”
As the top Democrat on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, Carper has been pushing for legislation that would designate PFAS chemicals as hazardous substances under U.S. environmental protection laws.
“By designating PFAS as hazardous substances under EPA’s Superfund law, this bill will jumpstart federal cleanup efforts and hold the DOD accountable,” Carper said.
Dover is not the only Delaware site impacted by PFAS contamination. Earlier this year, the CDC announced plans to randomly sample residents who live near the New Castle Air National Guard Base to test them for PFAS. The New Castle study is one of seven similar examinations around the country.
It’s similar to work done last fall in Bucks and Montgomery counties in Pennsylvania and Westhampton, New York. That study found that levels of one type of PFAS chemical, known as PFHxS, were more than five times higher than the national average, according to results obtained by The Philadelphia Inquirer.
The CDC study in New Castle will begin this year and continue into 2020.
The Sierra Club is threatening to sue the owners of a coal-fired power plant near Pittsburgh for releasing water that is too hot into the Allegheny River.
The group sent a Clean Water Act 60-day “Notice of Intent” to sue letter to the plant’s owners. It warned of legal action if the plant doesn’t meet requirements under its pollution discharge permits.
The Cheswick plant uses steam from its coal-fired boilers to create electricity. Under the terms of a clean water permit, the plant is allowed to release that water into the Allegheny River, but it’s not allowed to raise the river’s water temperature more than two degrees Fahrenheit.
A series of tests done by the plant in 2012 found it had raised the river’s temperature much higher than that. The tests revealed the plant discharge was heating the river by 18 degrees Fahrenheit in one case, and the plume of hot water was detected more than a mile downstream.
Higher water temperatures can be bad for some fish species because it lowers oxygen levels.
The Sierra Club conducted its own survey this month and found the river temperature was increased by seven degrees Fahrenheit near the plant in some cases, said the Sierra Club’s Patrick Grenter.
“The Cheswick plant is just dumping superheated water into the Allegheny River every single time they operate,” Grenter said.
“We’re seeing temperatures up to 18 degrees Fahrenheit warmer in the water than it should be. This has huge impacts.”
Grenter says other plants use cooling towers to lower the temperature of their water before releasing it.
“Cheswick is the only coal plant left in Pennsylvania without methods to control this pollution,” Grenter said.
Grenter said the Sierra Club found out that Cheswick was violating its “thermal pollution” requirements while researching a different water permit.
“What we want is to stop the harm of the Allegheny River and to force this coal plant to internalize the costs of their own pollution,” Grenter said.
GenOn, the plant’s owner, didn’t respond to requests for comment. A spokesman for the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection declined comment. The plant has 60 days to respond to the letter.
The insect is seen as a significant threat to Pennsylvania’s grape, tree fruit, hardwood and nursery industries.
The Delaware City Refining Company, LLC has agreed to pay a $950,000 penalty to the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control for violations of the Clean Air Act that date back to 2010. The settlement also addresses appeals the company made to DNREC-issued air quality permits.
The violations include releases of volatile organic compounds, hydrogen sulfide, and sulfur dioxide — pollutants that are known to cause breathing problems, skin irritation, and in some cases nausea, vomiting, and neurological effects such as dizziness. The refinery has also been cited for releases of methane, one of the most powerful heat-trapping gases that contributes to global warming.
DNREC has agreed to revise the permit language regarding emissions caps on certain units at the refinery. There is an annual cap on the facility’s emissions, but certain units have shorter-term limits that prevent large releases all at once. The new language allows the company more flexibility on some units under certain circumstances, such as when equipment is malfunctioning.
The revised permits will now enter a comment period. Once the comment period closes and the revised permits are issued, pending no major changes, the company has agreed to dismiss its appeals.
DNREC has been fighting the refinery over outstanding air and water violations since the facility’s restart in June 2010. DNREC Secretary Shawn Garvin told WHYY that the agency decided to separate the two issues due to the complicated nature of the air quality permit appeals.
The new settlement does not cover outstanding water violations by the refinery or any air quality violations after October 2018. For example, it does not cover violations from a fire that broke out in February, releasing hydrogen sulfide and sulfur dioxide into the air. Garvin said these more recent violations will be addressed through the usual investigation process.
“In any agreement, you don’t get utopia,” he said. “I think we got to a place in which we addressed a lot of backlogged issues that had been building up over time and set the stage for more clarity moving forward.” He expects to address future violations more quickly than those addressed by the settlement.
The Delaware City Refining Company is part of PBF energy, the owner of five refineries including the Paulsboro Refinery in Paulsboro, New Jersey.
“We are pleased to have reached a settlement agreement with DNREC regarding multiple air issues that go back almost eight years to the restart of the refinery,” said a spokesperson from the company. “With this settlement agreement behind us, we remain committed to operating the refinery safely, reliably, and in an environmentally responsible manner.”
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A working group convened by Philadelphia officials will focus on the future use of the Philadelphia Energy Solutions refinery and its 1,300-acre footprint in South Philadelphia now that the company has announced that damage from the June 21 explosion and fire would make it impossible to keep the plant open.
More than 1,000 people will be out of work because of the refinery’s closure. In a statement Wednesday, U.S. Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.) said he has received a commitment from Philadelphia Energy Solutions that it will pay workers affected by the shutdown through Aug. 25, rather than the earlier announced July 12. Casey said he made a direct appeal to PES’s chief executive Mark Smith on behalf of the workers.
Philadelphia Managing Director Brian Abernathy said the city wants to see the PES refinery become a job creator that is both safe for the environment and the surrounding community.
“But we have to have a realistic conversation. We’re not going to have a playground on this site. We’re not going to turn this into green space or parks and recreation space,” Abernathy said Tuesday on WHYY’s Radio Times.
“This is an industrial site that has over a hundred years of pollutants. If it becomes reused, it’s likely to be another industrial site,” Abernathy said.
Renewable energy is one potential reuse for the site, he said, but it would not generate as many permanent jobs as other uses would.
Different companies have operated refineries at the site since 1866, with very little regulation until the 1970s. Both the soil and the groundwater there are heavily contaminated with petroleum hydrocarbons that have negative effects on human health, including benzene, lead, toluene, ethylbenzene, xylene, and other toxic compounds. Some contaminants have migrated off the site, potentially affecting a drinking-water aquifer used by New Jersey.
“You can’t redevelop the site to the point that it could be clean enough to put people, and especially children,” Peter DeCarlo, associate professor of environmental engineering and chemistry at Drexel University, said during the same Radio Times segment. “The dangers for chronic disease or cancer would just be astronomical. It wouldn’t be worth the risk.”
The task of cleaning up that historic contamination falls to Sunoco (now Energy Transfer), the refinery’s former owner. Evergreen Resources Group, LLC is managing the remediation on behalf of the company. In 2012, when Delaware’s Carlyle Group entered a joint venture with Sunoco to form Philadelphia Energy Solutions, the purchase agreement established that any new contamination generated by the refinery after the deal was finalized in 2013 would be PES’s responsibility.
Sunoco has been working on the remediation of the site, monitored by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, since 2003. The company identified contaminants and made cleanup plans for the entire facility, divided into 10 geographic areas of interest.
But Christina Simeone, a senior fellow at the University of Pennsylvania’s Kleinman Center for Energy Policy who has authored multiple reports on the refinery, said Sunoco’s remediation plans may no longer make sense if the future use of the site changes. Even though company CEO Mark Smith said PES will position the refinery complex for a sale and restart, analysts told StateImpact Pennsylvania that finding a buyer will be almost impossible.
“Sunoco has been seeking site-specific industrial [pollution concentration] standards based on risk assessment that assumes the site would continue to be an operating refinery,” Simeone said in a separate interview Tuesday. “If the site’s no longer an operating refinery, it might call into question the appropriateness of some of these standards.”
Simeone said those standards are less stringent than statewide health standards.
“For example, they have a lead-in-soil standard that’s twice the health-based industrial standard for the state of Pennsylvania,” Simeone said.
Philadelphia’s Abernathy said the city has those same concerns.
“That’s a fair question: Is the environmental remediation appropriate, and what environmental remediation needs to happen,” he said, adding that the environmental impact of the site is “something that the city is very, very much focused on.”
Simeone said that even though several parts of Sunoco’s cleanup plan have already been accepted by the DEP — eight of the 10 areas of interest, including the one where the explosion occurred — the legality of those approvals has also been questioned. She says the City of Philadelphia, neighbors and other stakeholders have not been given the opportunity to be involved in the remediation planning, which is legally required by the DEP.
“Sunoco’s failure to engage with the community on remediation efforts elevates a disturbing trend in our city and across the nation,” Clear Air Council executive director Joseph Otis Minott wrote in PlanPhilly on June 20, in a commentary that followed a June 10 fire at the refinery. “Communities of color and low-income residents are forced to bear a higher burden of dangerous air pollution and environmental hazards.”
Abernathy said that Sunoco was warned, and that the city required the company to include public input in the future.
Simeone said the legal issue could create “a bit of a perfect storm” that could allow regulators to revise the cleanup standards.
“Sunoco could say: ‘Well, we have already gone through the process and it’s already done so you can’t change it.’ If they were following the law, they would probably have a pretty strong argument,” she said. “But they were not following the law.”
DEP spokeswoman Virginia Cain said the agency is in discussions with the city, Sunoco and other stakeholders to determine what steps need to be taken to correct the omissions in public involvement.
Energy Transfer declined to comment for this article. Evergreen Resources, the subsidiary set up by Sunoco to handle legacy environmental issues at the site, recently created a websitemaking all the remediation documents available to the public and establishing a comment period for the next Pennsylvania Act 2 reports.
According to a report by Simeone, as of December 2017 the estimated cost for remediation of the site, to the standards approved by DEP, was $17.4 million.
PES will have to respond to any environmental impact caused after 2013, including the damage caused by the fire. Virginia Cain, a spokeswoman for the DEP, said the agency has not been able to evaluate conditions at the site yet. But experts contacted for this story ventured that most of the pollution went into the air, not into soil or water.
“At this time, DEP cannot speculate on a cost estimate for the remaining work,” Cain said in an email.
Still, the fact that two companies are involved in cleaning up the site could create problems, said Bill Muno, a private consultant and former director for the Environmental Protection Agency’s Superfund program in Chicago. He’s currently involved in an arbitration on a chemical plant with the same issue.
“The problem that we got into in this case that I’m currently involved in is that it’s very hard to separate what’s old and what’s new,” Muno said. “Maybe the sale’s agreement between Sunoco and PES made that very clear, but often that can be a very, very sticky issue.”
Muno said the Superfund program created by the federal government to fund the cleanup of contaminated sites could act as a safety net if PES filed for bankruptcy.
Simeone said that wouldn’t be fair.
“There is a responsible party here. In no way should the taxpayer have to pay, which is what Superfund is — taxpayers end up paying for contamination at a site where the entity went bankrupt and can’t pay or isn’t around any more,” she said.
“Just because PES might go bankrupt, there is still a very financially healthy Sunoco who maintains responsibility to clean up that site,” she noted. “And behind Sunoco is Energy Transfer Partners. So the pockets are very deep.”
The Lancaster County District Attorney's office agreed not to pursue charges if the seven defendants performed community service.