State Metal Industries in Camden, N.J., is one of nearly three dozen sites in the Delaware River watershed identified in a federal government report that create, store or handle hazardous substances, and are required to develop plans to prepare emergency responders in the event of a spill or leak. Photo by Chris Mele
State Metal Industries in Camden, N.J., is one of nearly three dozen sites in the Delaware River watershed identified in a federal government report that create, store or handle hazardous substances, and are required to develop plans to prepare emergency responders in the event of a spill or leak. Photo by Chris Mele

Climate change raises the risks of hazardous materials getting into the Delaware River

| March 25, 2024

The effects of climate change — such as sea level rise, more intense rainfall and flooding — can increase the likelihood of hazardous materials getting into the Delaware River and put socially vulnerable populations at greater risk, experts warn.

The warnings follow a 2022 report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office that analyzed active facilities across the country that are subject to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Risk Management Plan Rule.

So-called RMP facilities create, store or handle hazardous substances, and are required to develop plans to prepare emergency responders in the event of a spill or leak.

The GAO report relied on federal data about natural hazards, such as flooding, storm surges, wildfires and sea level rise, that are exacerbated by climate change. It found that more than 3,200 of the 10,420 facilities analyzed are in areas where such hazards are prevalent.

Relying on the federal data, Delaware Currents found nearly three dozen RMP facilities, such as chemical manufacturers and water treatment plants, along the Delaware River. They are concentrated in the Philadelphia, Pa., Trenton, N.J., and Wilmington, Del., areas of the river.

Alfredo Gómez, director of the GAO’s natural resources and environment team, said the report highlights the ways in which accidental releases of toxic chemicals can occur, such as through human error, equipment failure and natural hazards.

“According to EPA data, there haven’t been that many accidental releases from these natural hazards,” Gómez said. “But what our report was pointing out is that with climate change, some of these impacts are already becoming more frequent, more intense. So, 

the question is, for all of these chemical facilities across the country, how well prepared is EPA and how good are these risk management plans? How well are these facilities incorporating these potential impacts into their plan?”

The GAO said that “facilities face a unique challenge in managing risks of an accidental release caused by a natural hazard because such a release may occur simultaneously with the damage and disruption caused by a natural disaster.”

“Natural hazards can lead to disasters that cause multiple and simultaneous releases over extended areas, potentially overwhelming both on- and off-site response capabilities,” the report said.

Requests for comment from several chemical industry and trade councils about the GAO findings were not returned.

The threat of sea level rise

The report noted that sea level rise could “inundate” areas where RMP facilities are located.

Dr. Allison Lassiter, assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania with an expertise in managing urban water resources in the context of climate change, said that as a result of increased rainfall and sea level rise, groundwater can infiltrate the water table.

“Some of these hazardous chemicals are stored underground, and it’s possible that they will start to interact with water tables,” Lassiter said. “So, let’s just kind of hope that they’re all buttoned up and secure, but if they’re leaking at all, any sort of leaking could possibly be accelerated, if it’s really submerged, by the water table.”

Along the Delaware, sea level rise could also increase the volume of water in the Delaware Estuary and Bay, as well as lead to an increase in salinity. An increase in salinity can corrode the mechanisms used to store hazardous chemicals.

“If there’s some sort of metal storage tank that’s holding some industrial contaminants, that would probably be sub-optimal,” said Tim Dillingham, executive director of the American Littoral Society, a New Jersey-based coastal conservation organization. 

“It’s possible that that metal storage tank would be eaten away a bit by the salt and could promote leaking.”

Superfund and inactive sites also susceptible

Holly Michael, professor and director of the Delaware Environmental Institute at the University of Delaware, said that in the coastal areas along the Delaware Bay, “legacy industry,” or “old places where there used to be industry,” remain with chemicals in the soil and groundwater.

According to the U.S. Geological Survey, the water under the land’s surface is separated into two zones: unsaturated and saturated. Groundwater is in the saturated zone, under the water table. 

The chemicals may be in the unsaturated zone, above the water table, where they are “immobile or stuck to the soil,” Michael said. But if there is a rise in sea level, resulting in a rising water table, the chemicals can “come off of the soil and move with the groundwater or get into the rivers.”

“If you have more water coming through the system, you might be flushing out these chemicals that are stuck there,” Michael said.

Brownfields or Superfund sites, former sites of facilities that still have hazardous materials, are also at risk of contaminants leaking into the Delaware when storms inundate an area, increasing water runoff.

One such brownfield is the 1,400-acre site of the former Philadelphia Energy Solutions’ oil refinery, along the Schuylkill River in Philadelphia. 

According to Delaware Online, the complex is the largest on the East Coast. In 2019, the refinery shut down as a result of a massive explosion reportedly caused by a vat of butane. 

Nathan Boon, senior program officer at the William Penn Foundation, which for the past decade has focused its environmental grantmaking on watershed protection, says the former refinery is a “good example of a legacy contaminated site with a lot of cleanup issues.”

Michael noted that at the time of these legacy contaminated sites, chemicals may have not been as regulated as they are today but “those chemicals are still in the soil,” she said.

The former refinery site was purchased by Hilco Redevelopment Partners for $225 million in 2020, and by the end of 2024, HDP expects to develop more than 1 million square feet of warehouse space, WHYY reported

In moving forward with its redevelopment, the company has been working to demolish the former refinery’s pipes, tanks and buildings, but according to WHYY, the site is reportedly home to toxic soil dating back to the Civil War, which must be remediated. 

Russell Zerbo, an advocate involved with the Clean Air Council, said the redevelopment of the former refinery “has all of its own air and water pollution issues and flood concerns.”

“There’s an existing flood concern that we know will only get worse both by the increasing effects of climate change, but also by expanding the industry,” Zerbo said.

The threat of power failures 

According to the GAO’s report, “flooding can damage facilities — for example, rising water can dislodge tanks or lead to a loss of power — and potentially cause accidental releases of hazardous chemicals.”

Flooding was reported in January along the Schuylkill River, the largest tributary of the Delaware River, after several inches of rain from a storm disrupted travel and led to road closures and power outages.

Andrew Kricun, managing director with Moonshot Missions, a non-profit focused on “providing technical assistance to water utilities in underserved communities,” said that more severe storms raise the risk of power outages, which, in turn, could result in discharges.

“For a wastewater treatment plant, you would have untreated sewage going into the river,” he said, noting that “this is exactly what happened during Hurricane Sandy.”

If a treatment plant is left powerless for an extended period, “the biology dies and so the plant may be ineffective for weeks after the power is restored, resulting in further discharge of raw sewage,” he said. 

Kricun said it’s critical for wastewater treatment plants to be off the electric grid and to be able to operate on green energy, such as solar.

“In that way, if there is a power outage, the plant can continue to run,” he said.

Communities at risk

Socially vulnerable communities are most at risk of the effects of hazardous spills along the Delaware River, experts say.

The GAO used FEMA’s National Risk Index to identify socially vulnerable populations living in areas where RMP facilities are located. The risk index draws on 29 socioeconomic variables, such as percent of people living in poverty and median age. 

Specifically, facilities located in Pennsylvania — Philadelphia, Croydon, Bristol, Levittown, Tullytown, Morrisville and Yardley — were designated as “relatively moderate” on the GAO’s social vulnerability index.

Marcha Chaundry, senior policy analyst at the Center for Progressive Reform, describes the proximity of these populations to chemical facilities and increased climate change risk as a compounded issue.

Chaundry said the center’s research has found that “the increase in frequency of hurricanes and intense storms over the past few decades have contributed to increased impact on communities in the surrounding area.” 

In its research, the center uses the social vulnerability index as defined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The index uses 16 U.S. Census social, economic and demographic indicators to identify socially vulnerable populations, which include housing, education level, age distribution, poverty status and household income.

“We understand that there are going to be only exacerbated risks as a consequence of climate change and increased flooding and sea level rise,” said Boon of the William Penn Foundation.

“That’s an important question to understand, in turn for the region, for regional resilience in the face of climate change, and for those communities who have historically been most often situated along the fence line of polluting industries and practices and who are most at risk for any potential hazards, potential accidents,” he added.

Boon said that while he believes there is a risk of chemical accidents as a result of climate change, there are other fundamental risks to polluting the Delaware that are more timely, such as PFAS chemicals or sewage contamination.

Kricun echoed Boon’s assessment, and said that the biggest climate risk for the Delaware is from more rain, which can result in more bacteria being flushed into the watershed. 

“There’s high risk, but low probability, of a chemical spill,” Kricun said. At the same time, there is a lower risk, but much higher probability of bacteria overflowing into the river any time it rains because of the greater flow of sewage into the river. 

“And in either case,” he said, “high risk or low risk, climate change means increased risk.”

Susanna Granieri

Susanna Granieri

Susanna Granieri received her M.S. degree from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism and her B.A. in journalism and digital media production from the State University of New York at New Paltz. She's written for the Legislative Gazette, an Albany-based newspaper focused on legislation, policy and politics; covered Alzheimer's, dementia and brain health for Being Patient; worked as an Immersion Fellow at the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting where she investigated the use of faulty forensic science in death penalty convictions; and currently is a staff writer at First Amendment Watch, a project at NYU's Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute.

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