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Pa. ranks 2nd worst in toxic dumping

Friday, February 18, 2000

By Don Hopey, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Pennsylvania's industries and sewage treatment plants dump more toxic chemicals into state waters than those in all but one other state, and the amount is increasing, according to a study released yesterday by a coalition of environmental groups.

 
    PG Online graphic:

Top contributors of river pollution

 
 

The study found that more than 40 million pounds of toxic pollutants were released into Pennsylvania waterways in 1997, the latest year for which federal statistics are available. While most of the discharges were within limits set by state and federal permits, 18 percent of the state's largest industrial facilities violated the Clean Water Act.

The Armco Inc. steel facility in Butler, purchased last September by AK Steel, ranked first nationally for the amount of pollutant discharges. The steelmaker legally discharged more than 29 million pounds of nitrate compounds -- a waste produced when nitric acid is used to "pickle" or clean the surface of raw steel -- into Connoquenessing Creek.

As a result, only the Mississippi River received more toxic chemical releases thaN Connoquenessing Creek, and the Mississippi got its pollution from many more sources in 10 states, according to "Poisoning Our Water: How the Government Permits Pollution," released yesterday by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group.

"Despite the clear intention of the Clean Water Act to eliminate pollution of our waterways, 40 percent are still too polluted for safe fishing or swimming," said Joshua Yeagley, campaign coordinator for Pennsylvania PIRG. "And we're seeing an increase in discharges because the regulations are not strong enough and the government isn't enforcing them."

Armco increased its nitrate discharges from 15 million pounds in 1996 to more than 29 million pounds in 1997 because of production increases and changes in the types of steel produced.

Nitrate levels were so high in the creek last year that Zelienople, which draws its drinking water from the creek during times of drought, had to advise pregnant women and children not to drink tap water.

Although the facility's state permit contains no nitrate discharge limitation, April Hutchinson, a state Department of Environmental Protection spokeswoman, said a new permit that will take effect in August limits the discharges and requires the company to reduce them.

"This is an issue we inherited and we will attempt to meet our commitments to reduce nitrate releases through alternative technology," said Alan McCoy, an AK spokesman. He outlined a three-part program that emphasizes reducing use of nitric acid, recovery of acid that isn't eliminated and treatment.

Nationally, 270 million pounds of toxic chemicals were discharged into rivers, lakes and streams in 1997 -- an increase of 20 percent over 1995 discharge totals. Louisiana, with its large number of oil refineries, had the most discharges, with 47 million pounds. Texas, also a big refinery state, was third with almost 28 million pounds.

As expected, the biggest pollution states cited in the report have concentrations of industry along abundant waterways, but several other industrial states in the Midwest and East had far less in discharges than Pennsylvania did.

Using the most recent data available from the federal Toxics Release Inventory and the Permit Compliance System databases, the study found nearly 30 percent of the 2,000 largest facilities nationwide were in violation of their federal or state discharge permits.

In addition to recommending tougher discharge limits and better enforcement, the study calls for mandatory minimum penalties for violators that include higher fines.

"We need clean water now, and we have to start by requiring polluters to obey the law," Yeagley said. "The fine amounts need to be high enough to prevent polluters from profiting. Industries often find it easier to pay the fines and then keep polluting."

After the Cuyahoga River caught fire in Cleveland in 1969, Congress passed the Clean Water Act of 1972, which set a goal of "zero discharge" by 1985. Nearly 30 years later, while the visible pollution from untreated sewage and many industries has been significantly reduced, more than 40 percent of the nation's waters are still not safe for fishing and swimming.

There have been more than 30,000 beach closings and advisories due to water pollution since 1988, and in 1998, 47 states -- Pennsylvania among them -- issued fish consumption advisories because of high contamination levels caused by dangerous chemicals in the water. Consumption advisories are in effect on the rivers around Pittsburgh for carp, catfish, walleye, sauger, bass and freshwater drum.

"Overall, the water quality may be better than it was," said Sue Seppi, executive director of the Group Against Smog and Pollution, "but the level of toxics is incredibly large. The public shouldn't have to accept closed beaches, fish advisories and bottled water as a matter of course."

In addition to AK Steel's Butler Works, other big pollutant discharges in Western Pennsylvania occurred at J&L Specialty Steel Inc. in Midland, Beaver County; and Allegheny Ludlum Corp. facilities in Leechburg, Armstrong County, and Brackenridge.

Bradley Campbell, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency regional administrator, said the Clean Water Act has had some notable successes, but that progress to clean up the nation's waterways has "plateaued."

He said the Clinton administration's Clean Water Action program is aimed at moving waterway cleanup forward again by expanding the public's right to know about industrial pollution sources and stepping up enforcement. New federal regulations have increased the number of facilities that must report discharges and the number of chemicals they must file discharge reports on, while lowering the threshold amounts that must be reported.

"Expanding the public's right to know about what chemicals are being discharged by the facility up the street has had a dramatic effect," Campbell said. "Historically, those disclosures have resulted in emissions eventually being cut in half."



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