As More Chemicals Spill, More Questions Arise
Toxic Spills Have Impacted Two Waterways Near Pennsylvania & Minnesota, Leaving Residents To Ask: Is Our Drinking Water Safe?
Ohio. Minnesota. Pennsylvania.
How many spills does it take to wonder what’s going on? It’s happening all the time, and more people are starting to pay attention.
We’ve already had 50 incidents this year across the United States, according to the Coalition to Prevent Chemical Disasters, who estimate that a chemical fire, explosion or toxic release occurs every two days in the U.S. Click on their website to see a map and list of all the chemical facility incidents.
About 124 million Americans live within three miles of more than 12,000 high-risk chemical facilities. That’s a lot of risk.
Spills outside of Philadelphia and Minnesota are the latest to made headlines and spur thousands of residents to rush to the store to buy bottled water.
“Toxic chemical leaks, fires, and explosions are shockingly common in the U.S.,” according to a 2022 report from Coming Clean, a national collaborative of environmental health and environmental justice organizations and experts working to reform the chemical and energy industries and The Environmental Justice Health Alliance for Chemical Policy Reform, a national network of grassroots environmental and economic justice organizations and advocates.
Let’s talk more about these recent spills.
The company that owns the chemical plant, Trinseo, a buyout and rebrand of Dow Chemical, attributed the accidental leak of more than 8,000 gallons of a latex finishing solution to “equipment failure” at its Bristol, Penn. location.
Officials said, the spill contained methyl methacrylate, butyl acrylate, and ethyl acrylate, which are commonly used to produce glass-like acrylics, but are also deemed hazardous to humans. Butyl acrylate was among the hazardous materials detected at the recent East Palestine, Ohio, train derailment site.
The toxins entered a storm drain where they spilled out to Otter Creek and then to the Delaware River, according to the company.
The Delaware River runs 330 miles long, flowing through five states including Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, Maryland, and Delaware. It provides drinking water for more than 13 million people.
A 2021 EPA report found that equipment failures are the leading cause of spills, and that private industry was most often the responsible party.
That report is the most comprehensive assessment to show the number, location, and characteristics of chemical and toxic spills into U.S. drinking water sources, using federal data from 2010 to 2019. It found 3,931 incidents of toxic spills into groundwater, rivers, or lakes used for drinking water.
Accidental releases of harmful chemicals into drinking water sources are a major problem for public water systems and the communities they serve. And despite the frequency at which they occur, communication continues to be problematic during these accidents.
Initially local officials instructed residents to drink bottled water out of an “abundance of caution,” and then later said testing found water from the spill had not made its way into the city’s system.
I appreciated everyone acting with caution, but I also think testing can be tricky.
The Philadelphia Water Department faced a class action lawsuit in 2016 due to questionable lead and copper testing practices.
I’m concerned anytime officials decide that the water is “safe” so quickly. Science takes time. I’ve watched for years as we have changed what’s safe, as more data can reveal the true impact toxic chemicals have on our bodies. And of course, we need to continue to invest in this kind of science.
I think it’s better to be honest and say, “We don’t know the true impact at this time.”
Over the years, I’ve been criticized about whether or not I have the data to prove a chemical is unsafe. But the same question can go to these chemical companies. Do they have the data to prove their products are safe?
People forget that Congress passed the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) in 1976. Before that, we had no records of what chemicals were manufactured, used, or released into the environment and no means of regulating them.
This law gave the EPA authority to help regulate new and existing chemicals with reporting, record-keeping, and testing requirements, and restrictions on chemical substances used commercially. It also gave the EPA authority to maintain a master list of chemicals and keep an inventory of them.
But when the law was signed, more than 60,000 chemicals already in use became grandfathered into the system with no toxicity testing. None.
We barely know what chemicals are safe when they are in the plant, when they spill out into the environment, it’s even more of a guessing game.
Meanwhile in Minnesota…
More than 400,000 gallons. That’s the amount of contaminated water that leaked from pipe at nuclear power plant near Minneapolis, back in November.
The plant run by Xcel Energy is located in Monticello, a city of about 14,000 people located next to the Mississippi River.
The federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission posted a notice publicly at the time, but the company and state agencies did not notify the general public until March. So now we’re talking about it.
Officials attributed the leak to a water pipe running between two buildings at the plant site.
“Xcel Energy took swift action to contain the leak to the plant site, which poses no health and safety risk to the local community or the environment,” the company announced in a statement.
Ongoing monitoring has confirmed that the leak “is fully contained on-site and has not been detected beyond the facility or in any local drinking water,” the company said.
But then, just this week a Minnesota utility shut down the nuclear power plant after discovering water was leaking from a pipe for the second time.
The chemical of concern in the water is tritium, a radioactive isotope of hydrogen that’s a common byproduct of nuclear plant operations. It emits a weak form of beta radiation, according to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC).
Edwin Lyman, director of nuclear power safety with the Union of Concerned Scientists, told ABCNews the fact there was a second tritium leak “shines a light on the problem of maintaining aging pipelines” underground at older nuclear plants.
A spokesperson for the NRC, Victoria Mitlyng, told a local news station that the public's concern was “very understandable,” and emphasized that “the public in Minnesota, the people, the community near the plant, was not and is not in danger.”
So my question is, where did the tritium go? If it’s safe, why are we cleaning it up? Are the people drinking it? These are simple questions that deserve answers.
We let private companies call the shots, do their own investigation, tell us everything is safe and then years later, we wonder why everyone gets sick down the road.
It’s a story that happens all too often.
Nationally, the costs and consequences of these often preventable happenings are staggering. Back to that 2022 report the researchers found that “in just one decade, incidents at facilities that use or store hazardous chemicals caused more than $2 billion in property damage, as well as the injury, death, shelter in place, or evacuation of half a million people.”
It’s the job of the U.S. EPA under the Risk Management Plan (RMP) rule, to prevent chemical disasters.
The rule requires facilities that use or store certain toxic or flammable substances, above threshold amounts, to develop a risk management plan and submit a summary of the plan to EPA.
These plans must assess a worst-case chemical release scenario, develop an emergency response plan, and consider safety and prevention measures.
What I want to know is: where are the plans? Release the safety considerations and prevention measures! We all want to read and learn more.
Like so many other great laws on the books, the RMP rule has failed to prevent frequent fires, explosions and harmful chemical releases from these facilities, and it also exempts many highly hazardous chemicals and facilities from regulation altogether.
The EPA has been revising the rule…. And those revisions are sorely needed.
There is no plan. There is no preparedness. And that’s why folks are rushing out to buy water. That’s why they email me and ask for help!
We need better communication and transparency. It’s not enough to drink one glass of water or show one test and say, “Everything’s fine!”
What do you think? Let’s keep the conversation going in the comments below.
Also, wanted to add this petition for anyone that wants to sign: https://www.change.org/p/stop-trinseo-plc-from-poisoning-our-drinking-water?recruiter=936669161&recruited_by_id=30c95270-3230-11e9-a772-d3048de6e520
Thanks for being here! AGREED.