DE: Special Report - Drinking Water at Risk

Special Report: Delaware Drinking Water at Risk: What you haven't been told about chemicals polluting the aquifer that serves Del., Md., N.J.

Tainted groundwater is spreading across thousands of acres in northern Delaware and has reached the Potomac Aquifer, which supplies drinking water to people across much of Delaware, Maryland and New Jersey.

In some areas of the upper Potomac near Delaware City and New Castle, concentrations of benzene, vinyl chloride and chlorinated benzenes are so high that exposure poses an immediate health threat. Elevated levels of these industrial byproducts significantly increase the risks of cancer. Sustained exposure could kill.

Northern Delaware is home to some of the worst chemical dumping grounds in America, a legacy of broken promises and corporate misdeeds. Regulators working for Delaware and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency have long claimed that the deep clay layers above the aquifer protected it from the foul waters discharged by chemical and petroleum manufacturers.

Those assurances have proved false.

The protective layer over the aquifer, scientists now say, is full of holes.

To prevent a public health disaster, the state has banned public use of groundwater under or near the Delaware City petrochemical complex.

Toxic pollutants, though, are now moving near the edge of that containment zone, outside the properties of Metachem, Occidental Chemical, Formosa Plastics and the Delaware City Refinery, and toward schools and houses.

One plume of chemicals has traveled a mile south of the refinery's main production area and has seeped 190 feet into the earth.

While millions have been spent to test and track the spread of potentially lethal chemicals, little has been done to keep residents informed about the threats to their drinking water. Some of the worst polluters have walked away, leaving cleanups to taxpayers.

Public health officials have barely begun to gather the epidemiological data and household research that could connect environmental toxins to the higher frequencies of lung, prostate and colorectal cancers found from Wilmington to Dover and around Millsboro.

The News Journal spent a year investigating groundwater contamination and toxins moving through the soil. The investigation uncovered a damning history of corporate mistakes and lax government oversight, especially in the corridor bordered by the Delaware River, Du Pont Highway and the Chesapeake & Delaware Canal.

The newspaper obtained thousands of pages of corporate documents, consultant reports, hydrology and geology studies, well-water monitoring reports and ecological tests on fish and plants. The majority of the documents were gathered through state and federal Freedom of Information Act requests. Most have never been distributed to the public.

Among The News Journal's findings:

Delaware City Refinery (cleanup led by former owner Motiva Enterprises). After nearly two decades of investigation, a Motiva consultant acknowledged to state regulators in 2008 that cleanup engineers don't know the direction or extent of pollution moving under the refinery, according to a document never publicly released. Engineers sought approval to inject nitric acid deep into the ground to neutralize a plume of sodium hydroxide. The company retracted the request after a Delaware City resident, unaware of the project's true purpose, requested a public hearing.

Delaware Sand & Gravel (private landfill near Army Creek owned by a trust). The EPA in April threatened to take over groundwater cleanup work after discovering that bis 2-chloroethyl ether (BCEE), an industrial solvent also used to make pesticides, continues to spread out of control near a major public utility well that supplies water to tens of thousands in northern Delaware. BCEE is a probable carcinogen. The EPA demanded a new plan to deal with the threat in a private letter to DS&G, obtained by The News Journal, that has never been publicized.

Metachem Products (formerly Standard Chlorine). Despite repeated assurances that deep groundwater was safe from herbicide and pesticide ingredients spilled at the abandoned Metachem plant, EPA consultants this year confirmed finding extremely high levels of toxic contamination deep underground, some at nearly twice the depth seen five years ago. The result was drastically different than the picture painted in mid-2005, when government officials noted "no detections" in a mid-year sample from a shallower well.

Delaware City PVC Plant (includes cleanup work for Formosa Plastics, Stauffer Chemical and Akzo Chemical). Levels of ethylene dichloride used in the production of vinyl chloride have increased "significantly" in some wells near Du Pont Highway, according to a March letter obtained by The News Journal. State regulators did not publicize the developments, although they did send private letters just over a year ago to neighbors urging them to consider hooking up to a public utility to reduce the risk of exposure to the probable carcinogen.

Occidental Chemical. A consultant's report filed with the EPA by Occidental Chemical speculated that mercury levels in sediments near the company's shuttered chlorine factory could be high enough to pose a risk to insect-eating birds that feed in nearby marshland.

Nobody -- not corporate consultants, not government regulators, not scientists -- can say how badly the upper Potomac Aquifer is polluted or how long it will take these plumes of toxic chemicals to reach new drinking water sources. After decades of spills, explosions and dumping -- and billions in corporate profits -- most of the manufacturers along the Delaware River's western border near Delaware City have closed or declared bankruptcy. The cleanup bill now belongs to a few corporate entities and to the public, which remains largely uninformed.

'No fix'

Near Patti Bennett's home, in a marshy hollow not far from Southern Elementary School, gasoline has pierced the Potomac and bled into Dragon Run creek, which meanders over several miles from Lums Pond to the Delaware River.

Monitoring tests conducted in 2006 found benzene and a since-banned gasoline additive at a level 160 times greater than the federal standard for safe drinking water.

The state Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control never reported those findings, and the public still would not be aware of the danger if The News Journal hadn't come across the report through a series of FOIA requests.

"I kind of know what's out there," said Bennett, whose relatives have owned land along Cox Neck Road, south of the refinery, since the early 1950s. "But nobody has ever come up and knocked at my door and said: 'Look, we have a problem and you might want to check your water.' "

Many of the documents are held by DNREC or the EPA under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, a law that allows government oversight of cleanups by active and ongoing businesses. Those cleanups, while publicly supervised, provide few avenues for public participation or briefings.

The federal Superfund cleanup law, while more attentive to public interests, creates projects that take decades to complete, with years passing between public notifications.

Delaware's top environmental officer acknowledged that the state hasn't communicated the scope of the problems well enough for the public to understand.

"I think that the focus of the department going forward has to be on the resource, not just on the property boundary," said Collin P. O'Mara, state secretary of Natural Resources and Environmental Control. "We're trying to shift that mind-set. A lot of the focus in the past has been on legal issues. Maybe we haven't done quite enough looking at the migration of some of these plumes, to try to move beyond the legal boundaries."

His agency is trying to develop more aggressive and protective approaches to water pollution investigations, efforts partly driven by concerns about state cancer death rates and recently identified contamination risks from other types of pollutants.

State regulators have made big strides recently in curbing industrial and power plant air pollution, some linked to cancer, O'Mara said. But work is only starting on other potential contributors to unexplained clusters of high cancer rates in parts of Delaware.

"We've not studied nearly as much the link between water pollution and various health outcomes," O'Mara said. "Water is probably the greatest environmental challenge facing the state right now."

Longtime resident Alice Wilmoth said she knew little about the underground poison nearing her home until anglers began steering clear of fishing in Dragon Run and the large tidal marsh that borders it.

Wilmoth, 83, has run the family-owned Delaware Bait Center alongside Dragon Run at U.S. 13 since the late 1940s, before the refinery was constructed over a landscape of farms and swamps.

"It's still really pretty. I used to fish a lot in there and I'd catch bluegill and pike -- the fish with teeth," Wilmoth said. "Now a lot of people are afraid to catch anything."

More glaring problems have been found in Red Lion Creek, a waterway just north of Dragon Run and north of the refinery and Metachem Products Superfund site. In 2007, a consultant for the EPA concluded that both adults and children would elevate their lifetime health risks if they ate fish caught from the creek.

Researchers concluded that pollution from several dangerous chemical spills had reached the groundwater around Metachem and posed a cancer risk to workers at the site and potential trespassers.

Delaware Geological Survey scientist Tom McKenna said the only thing to do about pollution in the area now is to cut off the source, clean up as much as possible and wait to see how far it spreads.

"You're not going to stop the tremendous volume of water from moving. You can't possibly pump it all out. You just have to be able to predict where the water is going, so folks can be made aware," McKenna said. "There is no fix."

Scientific disagreement

Delaware City's municipal drinking water is drawn from the Potomac hundreds of feet deeper than the private wells and a mile south of contamination from the refinery. Most homes and developments nearby today are served by public utilities that tap even more distant streams or wells.

The EPA contends pollution from the refinery, Metachem and the other nearby cleanup sites will take decades -- or longer -- to foul major public supplies.

Other experts say that scientists still don't understand the geology of the area well enough to be confident in predicting how fast plumes of underground chemicals will move. They warn that the pollution may already have caused irreparable harm.

Llangollen Estates resident Barbara J. Bason firmly believes that tainted water harmed her family in 1977, a time when the nation was waking up to the dangers of toxic spills and tainted groundwater.

The problem hit home when Bason's infant son, Chris, grew violently ill every time he took formula made with tap water from her house just south of New Castle, long served by public wells near some of the most-notorious toxic landfills.

"Whenever I used canned formula, there wasn't a problem," Bason recalled. "When I had to use tap water, he had projectile vomiting."

Bason began hauling in water from public springs miles away, and eventually installed a heavy-duty home filter.

Not long afterward, news emerged about the thousands of leaking drums and chemical wastes seeping out of the nearby Delaware Sand & Gravel industrial waste dump and into water supplies.

"People were terribly upset," Bason said. "They were finding serious stuff in the water that was apparently leaking out of what was dumped there."

After years of cleanup work, the Environmental Protection Agency declared DS&G under control, in the mid-1990s, going so far as to include the project among its Superfund "Success Stories."

By 2000, a toxic plume from the same landfill fouled Artesian wells serving Llangollen Estates and thousands of other homes near New Castle. State and federal officials ordered new remedies, only to admit earlier this year that groundwater threats remain out of control.

The spread of pollution can be impossible to predict in multilayered aquifers like the Potomac, said Rutgers University geologist Ken Miller.

"The Coastal Plain is notorious, because it has sands that are relatively unconsolidated that can transmit things a long distance," Miller said. Believing pollution to be safely confined can be a serious mistake.

"That's deadly," Miller said.

On May 10, 2008, DNREC banned any new public or private wells for drinking water over roughly eight square miles around the refinery. Although state environmental officials admit that pollution at the petrochemical complex north of Delaware City is vast, they insist it isn't hurting anyone.

"Right now, nobody is using groundwater from the area around the refinery or Metachem, and we believe the contamination is contained for the most part," said Marjorie Crofts, DNREC's acting Air and Waste Management Director. "All of the public wells in the area are much deeper, and it would take a very long time for any pollution from the refinery area to reach those supplies."

Federal and state regulators, though, frequently have overstated their ability to contain and control plumes of toxic chemicals. The government's response has been too slow and too weak, said Jane Nogaki, a member of the New Jersey Environmental Federation and Clean Water Action.

"A permit to operate isn't a permit for an industry to pollute," Nogaki said. "With our population continuing to grow, there's no assurance that we won't be needing all our sources of drinking water, and all groundwater should be treated as a potential source of drinking water."

Complex network

Around northern Delaware, the most important water-bearing aquifers are underground seams of sand, clay, silt and pebbles that settled out of tidal and river waters millions of years ago. As coastlines changed and oceans receded, the most-recent layers became dry land.

Below ground, some older layers opened channels for water sinking from the surface. The makeup and type of material -- sandy or rocky or clay-like -- determined how fast and in what direction water flowed.

Michael Boynton, a scientist now researching the Potomac near Delaware City for the EPA, said that aquifers in northern Delaware sometimes are more like a chaotic marble cake than a neat layer cake, complicating water movement and mapping efforts.

"It's very complex. The environment in the past that laid down the sediments in the first place were very high-energy. River materials can move around very rapidly and conditions can change as they're laid down. Trying to figure out where channels may be isn't easy."

At Delaware City, Boynton said, "the interpretation has changed over the years, and we've all learned that it's more complex. We've had to refine how we look at the water and the movement of the water and any contaminants that are associated with the water. It does take time."

In mid-2005, state and federal officials wrote in a progress report on the cleanup at Metachem that testing to date had found "no signs of site related contaminants" in a well 70 feet below the surface.

At the time, officials said they foresaw little, if any, risk that highly toxic chlorinated benzenes would soak into the Potomac from the soils above, where pesticide and herbicide ingredients had fouled dozens of acres, including wetlands adjacent to Red Lion Creek. Some of those toxic chemicals were found in a very shallow Potomac well before and after the 2005 report, officials admitted. But nothing pointed to deep aquifer contamination.

Until last fall.

The News Journal learned earlier this year that in September tests of water from a well twice as deep as those sampled in 2005 found four pollutants at levels up to 800 times higher than any previously reported. Concentrations of one toxic compound, benzene, were 5,200 times higher than levels considered safe by the federal government.

Neither the EPA nor DNREC released the full report to the public at large, although the findings were posted six months ago by DNREC to a hard-to-find state Web page. No public hearing has been held to examine the new dangers.

At the Delaware City Refinery, contractors working for Motiva admitted to state regulators in 2008 that they still do not know enough about the geology of the area to estimate how badly the Potomac already has been polluted in southern areas of the plant. DNREC has never publicly released this report, but The News Journal obtained a copy during its investigation.

The problem is so great that refinery consultants said they have been unable to identify all sources of the benzene, toluene, naptha, perchlorethelene solvents, sodium hydroxide and other hydrocarbons percolating under the plant.

They also cannot say how far the pollution has spread through an underground "paleochannel" that connects shallow and deeper Potomac water layers.

"Based on current data, the horizontal direction of groundwater flow and lateral connectivity of sand unit(s) within the Potomac Formation cannot be fully defined," the consultants wrote in 2008. "The extent of the [dissolved pollution] ... is currently unknown."

Unsettling news

Some federal summaries of the cleanups near the refinery have asserted that the public has shown little interest in groundwater contamination there. Motiva provided DNREC and the EPA with a public participation plan in 2005, but since then has provided only a few limited updates to members of the plant's Citizens Advisory Committee.

At the shuttered Occidental Chemical plant, where toxic mercury pollutants are a major concern, the public's interest has been shrugged off.

"To date, there has been little interest expressed in this site by the local community," a summary on the EPA's website noted.

But more than a dozen residents who live nearby told The News Journal they had no idea plumes of chemicals were headed their way.

"It's very hard for the public to grasp what's going on down there," said Seth Ross, a Delaware Nature Society member who has followed the issue for years. "If they don't have enough information, it's hard to have an interest."

Delaware City resident Pamela Martin said she was unaware of problems in Dragon Run, which runs alongside the tiny, scenic home and horse stable that her family owns, about a mile southeast of the refinery.

Martin's property includes a patch of wetland threatened by plumes of gasoline and benzene.

"I bought this property a few years ago, and nobody told me anything about that," said Martin. "If there's stuff like that in the water that's going to be a detriment to the wetlands, it's something that we need to know about now."

Mark Summerfield, who has lived south of the refinery for nine years, also was unaware of the spreading pollution until a reporter questioned him. He said he found the news unsettling.

"We'd like to be made aware," Summerfield said. "It might get more people out to public meetings when these issues come up."

Kenneth T. Kristl, who directs the environmental law clinic at Widener University, said the public needs to know more about the problems around Delaware City.

"The fact of the matter is, if you have warning signs, the public may have a different view of the urgency of the situation," Kristl said. "An industrial site is used for industry, but I don't think that any fair reading of state or federal environmental laws says that, just because I have an industrial site, I get to pollute."


This article was printed by Delaware Online on July 25th, 2010 and was written by Jeff Montgomery.