PHILADELPHIA – Cancer-causing pollution from military activities, defense contractors and others has contaminated a wildlife refuge for nearly 50 years.
Pollution dangers at the John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge at Tinicum have been documented since at least 1980, but little has been done by the EPA or anybody else to eliminate the problems. There are contaminant-fueled fires, frequently expressed public health concerns and congressional mandates, The Daily Caller News Foundation Investigative Group has learned.
The EPA included the area as part of a Superfund site in 2001. A surrounding community faced a “statistically significant” number of cancer cases, according to a study EPA commissioned, but only in 2012 – decades after pollution dangers were discovered.
Residents have repeatedly complained about high cancer rates over the decades.
Two municipal landfills – called Folcroft and Clearview – leak toxic pollution into the Darby Creek, which runs through the refuge, federal documents show. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service owns both the refuge and Folcroft, where the military waste was found.
Locals “read laundry lists of inordinate cancer levels among people living” near Clearview during a congressional field hearing, the Delaware County Daily Times reported in May 2000.
One resident’s six-year-old son – who regularly played near Darby Creek – had a bone infection; her daughter had lumps removed from both breasts. A local doctor detailed significant health concerns and illnesses residents reported.
A local attorney said the EPA knew about the problems for years and that “[p]eople are dying,” the Times reported. She called the community “the valley of the shadow of death.”
Roy Seneca, an EPA regional spokesman, told TheDCNF that “unacceptable risks to human health and the environment were not identified in … studies until the late 1990s.”
But decades-old EPA studies have shown that pollution leaking from both landfills harmed the refuge’s ecosystem. A Pennsylvania agency even issued an advisory against drinking the creek’s water and eating the fish and banned commercial turtle harvesting in 1985.
“Toxicological estimates predict that water quality is limiting for the survival, growth and reproduction of organisms within the center,” a 1986 EPA study said. “In summary, the various pollutant sources … have an adverse environmental impact on the Tinicum marsh.”
Numerous subsequent studies reported similar findings.
Regardless, little has been done to treat the pollution. Clearview started receiving treatment in 2011, but is likely years away from completion. Folcroft has seen some treatment, but is largely untouched.
Plenty Of Studies, Little Action
It’s unclear why so little pollution has been cleaned, given the known dangers. A 1969 Pennsylvania inspection first revealed that the Folcroft landfill accepted waste from various sources, including hospitals, the Navy’s Philadelphia Naval Shipyard, and companies that frequently contract with the military, such as Boeing, according to a 2001 EPA report.
Inspectors witnessed refuse “being pushed directly into a swamp,” the report said.
Courts shut down Folcroft and Clearview in the 1970s for violating dumping rules, EPA records show. Congress appropriated money to FWS in 1980 to purchase Folcroft as part of the Heinz refuge, but required that any pollution be studied and cleaned.
A 1983 fire at Folcroft exposed “large quantities of illegally dumped hospital wastes,” the 2001 EPA report said. Some uncovered drums “caught fire on contact with water,” while others “burst into flames when their contents were exposed to the atmosphere.”
The EPA tried to contain the waste, but it’s unknown if any other pollution has since been removed from Folcroft.
Regardless, subsequent EPA studies showed that pollution at the Heinz refuge persisted. The 1986 report recommended the EPA, the Department of the Interior and state investigators try forcing polluters to fund future studies, clean-up and restoration. Instead, the EPA continued studying the site for years.
Meanwhile, the public, the media and various lawmakers, including then-Rep. Bob Edgar, a Pennsylvania Democrat, and then-Sen. John Heinz – after whom the refuge was later named – repeatedly called for the sites’ decontamination. Heinz was a Republican.
The EPA finally designated seven pollution sources, including the two landfills and a county-run sewage treatment plant, as a Superfund site in 2001. That designation is reserved for the nation’s most contaminated sites.
Cleanup action wasn’t taken for another decade and is still underway. The Folcroft landfill has had no cleaning since the Superfund designation and the official investigations won’t be completed until this year, according to Seneca.
That means decontamination won’t begin for years. Seneca explained:
“EPA addresses Superfund sites based on current or potential risks to human health and the environment. EPA was not able to access the main portion of the [Clearview] landfill until authorized via a federal court order in late 2005.”
Seneca didn’t explain why it took so long to add the area to the Superfund program.
“EPA has not identified any short-term risks to human health or the environment” from the Folcroft landfill, Seneca said.
The EPA reported as recently as 2001 that both Folcroft and Clearview consisted “of releases of hazardous substances into the waters of Darby Creek.”
Additionally, human exposure to pollution is “not under control” and there is “insufficient data” – despite decades of study – to determine if groundwater is contaminated, according to the EPA’s website.
Seneca confirmed that the Navy is listed as a polluter, but he declined to provide further details.
“I’m unable to provide comment due to ongoing litigation in relation to the Folcroft landfill,” Navy Lt. Chika Onyekanne told TheDCNF. “I don’t have any further information to share on the litigation.”
FWS spokesman David Eisenhauer didn’t comment on the lengthy time required for the clean-up to completed.
“FWS has been working in partnership with EPA to investigate the site” since 1980, as Congress ordered, Eisenhauer told TheDCNF. “EPA will be able to give more detail” as the lead agency, though FWS will ensure an appropriate remedy is selected.
Kevin Klenkel contributed to this report.
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