Breathing life into the Delaware River

"YEARS AGO, WHEN I was 8 or 10 years old, when I went over the Ben Franklin Bridge I would smell something awful — it was the river. Of course, I blamed New Jersey. Now there are fish in that river."

That's how David Wolanski, in one short sentence, described the immense progress that's been made in the past 40 years to nurse the Delaware River from its deathbed by hundreds of environmental caretakers: from the Delaware River Basin Commission to the Clean Water Acts; from the people who work tirelessly in rivers and streams that empty into the Delaware to the states that border it.

Wolanski was speaking as chairman of the DRBC's Water Quality Advisory Committee at the beginning of its most recent meeting, where those representing all of those vital players — and more — were present. Wolanski is at the table representing Delaware's Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control.

Its chief goal was to come up with a way to continue to improve the river, and in order to do that, the suggestion had to be approved by a majority of the those on the committee.

There are a host of organic and inorganic chemicals in water. Some are good, some not so good, but the best indicator of life in the water is dissolved oxygen. Fish need oxygen, as do countless other aerobic life forms. Water with the highest percentage of dissolved oxygen is found in fast-running rivers and streams.

One of the best ways to improve water quality is to improve the quality of the water that's entering the river as wastewater. Remember, there are likely hundreds of straws sucking in water from the river and from the aquifers in its watershed, and much of that water gets recycled back into the river after treatment. Each step in getting the river cleaner is accompanied by the expenditure of significant dollars in upgrading wastewater treatment plants. If we're talking municipal water, we're talking tax dollars.

While anyone at the table may have his or her own personal ambitions for improving the Delaware, each of them represents a stakeholder.

If you're representing New Jersey, for example, a commitment beyond where the standards are now means that your state and its myriad municipalities are going to incur costs. In these budget-conscious times (and when is it otherwise?) those stakeholders are going to be mighty careful to balance needs and wants.

You could say we all want to have a cleaner river, but how much do we need it to be cleaner?

We're not going to answer that question here — but even those who have to answer to tax-sensitive municipalities are also representing fishing interests and tourism. Many of those same towns that might be reluctant to spend tax dollars on wastewater clean up are also hungry for tourism dollars.

In addition, the cleaner the towns and cities upstream of that municipality make their wastewater, the less the downstream municipalities have to do with the water to make it drinkable. We're not even going to throw into this mix the simple fact that improving the water improves the planet and provides a better buffer to what could be devastating impacts from climate change.

Among the stakeholders sitting under the DRBC's wide umbrella was a representative from The Chemours Company. Dupont Co. spun off its performance chemical division in July 2015, naming it Chemours. Both Chemours and DuPont are based in Delaware. For an interesting read about the difficulties some have had with the history of Dupont, click here.

Another interesting read — if you want to go down the Dupont/Chemours rabbit hole is this from The Insurance Journal. The headline reads: DuPont Transfers Pollution Liabilities for 171 Sites to New Company Chemours and you can find it here.

None of this is to say that Chemours isn't interested in improving the quality of water in the Delaware. Though perhaps it is true that it's not in a tearing hurry to spend the significant dollars that an expedited cleanup would cost. J. Bart Ruiter, who is a senior consultant at Environmental Chemours Engineering Technology, voted for one of the least aggressive proposals (there were seven to begin with) to improve water quality. The one Chemours supported was called C1. For a break down of the proposals:

Interestingly, David Wolanski (we met him at the beginning as an 8-year old) also gave his initial support to the same proposal. The comment he made didn't claim it was the best for the river on its face: "With C1, we can all push forward together. At any time any stakeholder can stall the process by litigating." What he said, in effect, is that half a loaf is better than none. Litigation would take time and money and translate into no improvements to the river until that litigation was sorted out.

Ruiter doesn't just represent Chemours on this advisory committee; he is a representative of many businesses which empty wastewater into the river. He gave that number as 75. One of the ways he made his case is that, like those municipalities that are nervous about the tax burden of increased standards, his company and others might have to make significant investments in wastewater treatments now, only to find in five to eight years, when all the scientific modeling is completed, that there could be another round of expenses.

This was a little too much for one of the other committee members, the Delaware Riverkeeper, Maya van Rossum, who said it was "ludicrous" that companies like Dupont/Chemours which created the problems with the river can have so much say in how the damage is repaired. She also pointed out that two can play at the litigation game. She vowed that the Riverkeeper is just as prepared as Chemours to pursue litigation to get the changes it wants.

Both sides here have a legitimate point, the science of the water in the river hasn't yet caught up — in a substantial quantitative way — with the simple fact that there are fish swimming in the Delaware River and Bay where once there were no fish.

There is little data that can reliably show exactly why the fish have come back, which begs the question: What do we do to protect them? The scientific explanation of what's happening takes time, so the final word on the best path forward can't be spoken yet.

So it is a legitimate fear that any steps (read investment) now would be overtaken by the scientific exploration and necessitate new investment.

Added to that, the man-and-woman power to do that investigation is considerable, which was pointed out by Thomas Fikslin, the manager of the DRBC's Modeling, Monitoring and Assessment Branch. He said that there's only so much that can be put on the plate of the DRBC, whose 30 employees already have plenty of work they are committed to do. That, in turn means that the modeling that some of the committee members want in order to have a definitive end goal before setting new standards might be a long time coming.

All the while, the fish have already made up their minds, and are coming back to the Delaware, which prompted committee member John Jackson from the Stroud Water Research Center to point out that there are already models available — the fish themselves. Biological investigation of the fish might be a quicker and easier route to follow to ascertain why the fish came back and what should be done to encourage their numbers to grow stronger.

As passionate as Riverkeeper van Rossum was about improving the river as soon as possible, she was the one who worked through lunch to develop a compromise with other interested parties, including the EPA's Evelyn MacKnight, who is from EPA's Region 3 (Delaware, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia, West Virginia), who works on the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System. Both EPA regions 3 and 2 (New Jersey, New York, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands) are committee members.

Van Rossum's suggestion allowed for the scientific work to proceed, but also gave a goal of dissolved oxygen to aim for: 5.5mg/liter. That's an increase from the present standards which vary according to the specific regions of the river.

Even the voting was interesting, with each committee member asked to vote for his or her Number 1 proposal, as well as a second choice. Some members gave two votes, some gave only one and abstained for the second vote. Which yielded what Erik Silldorff, DRBC's senior aquatic biologist called a "pluralistic recommendation" to go forward to the commissioners: Support for both the C1 proposal as well as for the Riverkeeper's compromise proposal. Deciding which of those came out ahead might be in how you prefer to read the tea leaves.

DRBC Proposals

A suggestion from this committee would move forward to the Delaware River Basin commissioners, who represent the four states which border the Delaware and a representative of the federal government, the Army Corps of Engineers. Changes like this can pass with a majority vote.Because all the people at the table, as well as in the interested audience, are involved in the work of this committee, you might think the task was easy.Think again. This committee has been months and months hammering out proposals, preparing for a vote. And today is the day.

About Meg McGuire

Meg McGuire has been a journalist for 30 years in New York and Connecticut. She started in weekly newspapers and moved to full-time work in dailies 25 years ago. She knows about the tectonic changes in journalism firsthand, having been part of what was euphemistically called a "reduction in force" six years ago. Now she's working to find new ways to "do" the news as an independent online publisher of news about the Delaware River, its watershed and its people.

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