Pollution Report Reveals Troubling Trends Facing PA’s Waterways

PennsylvaniaImage by Michael Adams

PENNSYLVANIA — Industrial facilities dumped more than 5.8 million pounds of toxic chemicals into Pennsylvania’s waterways in 2020. Weighted by the toxicity of these chemicals, Pennsylvania had the 9th worst pollution in the country overall and the 3rd worst pollution in the country for chemicals linked to reproductive health risks in 2020,  according to a new report by PennEnvironment Research & Policy Center.

The group’s Wasting Our Waterways report comes as the Supreme Court is set to consider a case on October 3 that could dramatically restrict the scope of the Clean Water Act, the bedrock environmental law that turns 50 next month.

“Pennsylvania’s waterways should be clean – for swimming, fishing, providing drinking water and supporting wildlife,” said Ashleigh Deemer, Deputy Director with PennEnvironment Research & Policy Center. “But all too often, polluters use our rivers as open sewers with no repercussions. As the Clean Water Act turns 50, it’s time to stop this toxic dumping.”

The PennEnvironment Research & Policy Center’s report is based on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Toxics Release Inventory (TRI) for 2020. Industrial facilities self-report to the TRI how much toxic material they release into surface waters. Major findings of the report include:

  • Industrial facilities dumped 5,861,055 pounds of toxic chemicals into Pennsylvania’s waterways – the 12th largest amount of any state or territory in the country
  • Pennsylvania had the 3rd largest amount of toxic releases of chemicals linked to reproductive health risks
  • Three Pennsylvania watersheds are in the top 50 of all watersheds nationally for having the largest amounts of toxic pollution. The Brandywine-Christina watershed ranks #3 on the list, while the Schuylkill is ranked #18, and the Lower Monongahela is ranked #21. Millions of pounds of toxic pollutants were dumped into each of these watersheds in 2020 alone.
  • Polluters dumped 22,621 pounds of chemicals linked to reproductive health risks into Pennsylvania’s waters. The Lehigh watershed had the 2nd largest amount of these pollutants for any major watershed in the country, while the Lower Monongahela watershed had the 4th highest.
  • U.S. Steel’s Clairton Coke Works near Pittsburgh released 2,135,786 pounds of toxic chemicals into the Lower Monongahela watershed – the largest amount from any single facility in the state. Some chemicals pose more risk to human health than others, so applying the EPA’s tool for measuring relative toxicity, the report found that the Holcim cement manufacturing facility in Whitehall in the Lehigh watershed had the worst toxic releases to PA waterways in 2020.
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Across the commonwealth, these iconic waterways are sources of drinking water, places for recreation, and habitats for important Pennsylvania wildlife.

“Pennsylvanians rely on our rivers and streams for drinking, recreation, and tourism. Leaders at all levels need to come together to protect our waterways from toxic pollution,” said State Representative Carol Hill-Evans.

“The Schuylkill River is one of our region’s greatest public assets, and Philadelphians’ health and well-being are directly bound with the health of our river. This new report shows that industrial facilities continue to dump toxic substances into our waterways, proving unequivocally that they prioritize their own profits over our residents’ lives,” said State Senator Nikil Saval. “I’m grateful to PennEnvironment for elevating this report so that we can reduce the use of toxins, update crucial pollution standards, and hold corporations accountable for their harms.”

“Our waterways are more than a common resource; water is life. These waterways need to be protected instead of sacrificed to industrial chemical pollutants that prioritize profits over the health and safety of people, said Tara Zrinksi, Northampton County Commissioner. “The damage these forever chemicals have already done is immeasurable and we need to take action now.”

The report recommends several steps to stem this tide of toxic pollution – including requiring industry to switch from toxic chemicals to safer alternatives. But advocates are also worried that the Supreme Court could drastically limit the number of waterways protected by the Clean Water Act.

“The Clean Water Act has drastically improved our waterways since its signing nearly 50 years ago. Nevertheless, due to loopholes, deregulations and lack of enforcement, our waterways are nowhere near where they should be, said Heather Hulton VanTassel, Executive Director of Three Rivers Waterkeeper. “There needs to be stricter regulations on what can be discharged into our waters. We need to close the loopholes, and we need to enforce our clean water laws.”

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“Clean Water Action was founded 50 years ago for the purpose of assuring that the United States of America has a Clean Water Act that protects the integrity of our drinking water and the value of the natural waterways and bodies that turn into drinking water, said Joy Braunstein, the Western PA Policy & Development Coordinator with Clean Water Action, ” It is tragic that half a century later we are having to talk about this.”

“Polluters shouldn’t be able to use Pennsylvania’s waterways as a dumping ground,” said Deemer. “As the Clean Water Act turns 50, we should be setting stronger protections for our rivers and streams, not sliding backwards.”

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