Pennsylvania ranks second in the nation in the number of excessive pollution discharges sent into waterways by industrial and commercial facilities, according to a report released Tuesday by PennEnvironment.

The report looked at data from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as well as state agencies on discharges by major industrial facilities during a 21-month span in 2016 and 2017.

Texas was first in the number of discharges exceeding permitted limits, with 938 instances. Pennsylvania followed with 633, based on data supplied to PennEnvironment by the state's Department of Environmental Protection.  Statewide, the discharges ranged from ammonia nitrogen, styrene, copper, and aluminum to oil and grease.  Such discharges can alter water chemistry and impact aquatic life.

"Not only did many major industrial facilities exceed their permit limits – sometimes frequently – but some of those exceedances were particularly severe," the report states, "with facilities releasing multiple times the amount of pollution permitted under their Clean Water Act Permits."

New Jersey was not included in the report because its records were missing from the EPA database used by the researchers.  The state has failed to report data since 2012, but is working with the EPA to upload missing records this year.

Locally, excessive discharges from major facilities were monitored at:

  • U.S. Steel Corp. in Fairless Hills, Bucks County, where discharges impacted the dissolved oxygen in the water going into the Delaware River. Dissolved oxygen levels are used as a barometer of water purity.
  • Graterford Prison, Montgomery County, where monitoring showed releases into a tributary of Perkiomen Creek.  Discharges included ammonia nitrogen, iron, suspended solids, and fecal coliform.
  • Monroe Energy Trainer Refinery in Marcus Hook, Delaware County, where releases flowed into Stoney Creek near the Delaware River. Discharges included suspended solids and phenolics, which also impacted dissolved oxygen.

A representative for U.S. Steel could not be reached immediately for comment.  The Graterford discharges likely occurred during construction.  Graterford is being replaced by the $400 million State Correctional Institution Phoenix in Skippack Township, set to open in June. Representatives for Monroe Energy had no comment.

To derive its data, PennEnvironment pulled records from the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System, which was authorized under the Clean Water Act.  The act prohibits facilities from sending pollutants into a waterway unless it has a permit to do so.  The permits contain limits on how much can be discharged, as well as how a site is monitored.  So it examined which facilities exceeded those permitted limits and over how many days.  It did not include all violations — some of which could have been bureaucratic in nature.  In some cases, state level data were more complete, as was the case in Pennsylvania.

PennEnvironment, a statewide advocacy organization, said enforcement of the Clean Water Act is often weak and getting weaker.  It worked with the Frontier Group to compile the report.

"Decades after the Clean Water Act was signed into law, nearly 20,000 miles of rivers and streams in Pennsylvania are still considered unsafe for fishing and swimming," said Stephanie Wein, clean water advocate at PennEnvironment. "And instead of ratcheting pollution down to zero, facilities are still dumping chemicals and other pollutants into our waters beyond the legal limits set to protect health and the environment."

EPA records show, according to PennEnvironment, that most violators don't get punished.  Most years, tens of thousands of facilities are out of compliance. Less than half faced any EPA or state enforcement action.  Those that did received wrist slaps, such as warning letters.

The organization said enforcement is further eroding under the Trump administration and EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, who has been widely criticized by environmentalists as favoring business.

The administration is attempting to roll back some clean water protections on wetlands and streams, loosen regulations on pollution from coal-fired plants. and discharge limits for steam electric plants, PennEnvironment noted. It was also seeking to repeal the Clean Water Rule, a 2015 provision of the Clean Water Act, and replace it with a more permissive rule.