Ongoing Threat from Plant behind March Chemical Spill


Several weeks have passed since Philadelphia was in a panic over the specter of contaminated drinking water. But while concerns over the March 25 chemical spill at a Trinseo Altuglas plant in Bristol have faded into yesterday’s news, hazards still swirl for both people and animals in Lower Bucks County.

In an email to Grid, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) said this week that “residual weeping of discolored material” continues to emanate from an outfall pipe that originally spilled some 8,100 gallons of latex solution into Mill Creek (known to locals as Otter Creek), which then flows to the Delaware River. While a boom — a temporary floating barrier — was placed into the creek after the initial spill, the DEP says additional measures are underway to control ongoing seepage.

“A sandbag containment berm was or will be built within the immediate area in front of the outfall to help to contain any residual weeping material and allow this material to be removed,” the DEP said, adding that it still considers the incident an active investigation and cleanup.

The spill and continued seepage of the solution, which contained the hazardous chemicals methyl methacrylate, ethyl acrylate and butyl acrylate, has some watchers on edge. The Delaware Riverkeeper Network, a nonprofit that advocates for the health and safety of the watershed, performed some initial surveys of the impacted waterways last month, but lambasted responding authorities for what the network said was a lack of official assessment of impacts to flora and fauna in the area.

“Why have we not received information about the potential impacts to, and monitoring of, the ecosystems in the path of harm? Mill Creek, Otter Creek, the Bristol Marsh, as well as native eel, native mussels and macroinvertebrates [are] the base of the food chain and all live in the vicinity of the spill,” Maya van Rossum, lead riverkeeper, said in a late March missive. “We have been asking and getting no answers other than there are no reported sightings of impacts to wildlife. That is just not good enough.”

Asked about evaluations of wildlife, the DEP stated that “numerous water samples” taken from the waterways and Bristol Marsh, an important tidal wetland in the area, showed no detectable levels of the chemicals in question. It added that it believes the chemical solution spilled is unlikely to bind to soils, and that a visual inspection performed of the marsh at low tide by personnel from DEP, the state Fish and Boat Commision and U.S. Coast Guard “did not find any visual evidence of any deposition of the white synthetic latex material.”

But even if, similarly to Philadelphia Water Department customers, local plants and animals in the Bristol area dodged a bullet from the spill, public health advocates see a different threat: air pollution.

The Trinseo Altuglas spill is the latest chapter in a long history of pollution in the Bristol area. As I reported in 2017 for The Bucks County Courier Times, industrial activity in Lower Bucks stretches back a century, when prospectors for the chemical company Rohm and Haas visited a Bristol farm near the Delaware River and saw an ideal spot to set up shop.

The resulting industrial buildup in the area has since changed hands a number of times: the Dow Chemical Company now owns the site and is technically responsible for the outfall from which the spill still leaks, even though it originated from a separate Trinseo Altuglas operation, which arrived following a 2021 buyout.

Regardless, as laid out in my reporting and more recently by journalists at the Philadelphia Inquirer, industry in the area has a long history of leaks, spills, air pollution and violations. In the past five quarters alone, Dow operations at the site have been cited five times by the DEP, including for potential unauthorized leaks of chemical solvents into the air, failing machinery meant to burn off emissions and improper notification of asbestos removal.

But perhaps most concerning of all are ongoing, entirely legal air emissions from the Altuglas facility. Records from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency analyzed by Grid show the facility has released an average of 39,490 pounds of methyl methacrylate, ethyl acrylate and butyl acrylate annually over the past 10 years via its air stacks. In other words, while Philadelphians faced a temporary, hopefully one-time threat from the release of some 8,100 gallons of the chemicals into water, residents living close to the Altuglas facility live in proximity of air stacks that release tens of thousands of pounds of the same chemicals into the air each and every year.

Technically, that’s allowed. The DEP says those releases are within the facility’s permits and “considered to be protective of the environment.”

But Russell Zerbo, advocate for the environmental nonprofit Clean Air Council, worries otherwise. He says environmental regulations are woefully inadequate, particularly as they often do not address the cumulative risk of human exposure to a variety of different kinds of chemicals in the air, as is a common reality near industrial sites.

“Cumulative exposure is the biggest thing to worry about…. There are no statutes in the Clean Air Act that combine the effects of living near multiple facilities,” Zerbo says. “Companies are exposing people to air and water pollution every single day.”

He connects the dots far and wide. While the train derailment and chemical releases in East Palestine, Ohio, earlier this year drew worldwide media attention, far less has been given to regular exposures to chemicals in the St. Louis region from where the train originated as well as East Liverpool, Ohio, where excess toxic wastes from the spill were burned off at an incinerator. Zerbo notes that, even closer to home, residents of Philadelphia lived for decades with hazardous emissions from the former Philadelphia Energy Solutions refinery until it literally blew up in 2019.

Zerbo says he hopes last month’s chemical spill will have one “positive effect” in raising public awareness and creating the impetus for better environmental regulations. And that’s especially true for industrial facilities that are more than a century old and sit alongside rivers providing drinking water to millions, like both the former PES site and the still-operating Rohm and Haas complex do.

“Any added regulation of these facilities … should help reduce the burden,” Zerbo said.

Sent a list of questions regarding the chemical spill, the plant’s air releases, and the potential health risks to area residents and wildlife, a spokesperson for Trinseo Altuglas provided a link to the company’s FAQ page for the incident that did not contain information relevant to several of the questions.

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