PA’s Environment, Communities Benefit from Merck Settlement

HARRISBURG – The Department of Environmental Protection today agreed to the terms of a more than $20 million settlement with drug-maker Merck and Co. Inc. that will support restoration work in the Wissahickon Creek watershed, upgrade the company’s West Point facility responsible for an illegal June 2006 chemical release into a Montgomery County sewer system, and fund other water improvement projects in the region.

Under the agreement, Merck will pay $4.5 million to DEP, $4.5 million to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and invest $10 million for the plant upgrades.

The company will also pay fines of $750,000 to DEP for violating Pennsylvania’s Clean Streams Law, Solid Waste Management Act and Safe Drinking Water Act; $750,000 to the EPA; and $75,000 to the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission.

DEP Secretary Kathleen A. McGinty said this settlement resolves an unfortunate incident and paves the way for work that will prevent future releases from the West Point facility.

“The spill of dangerous chemicals last year left its mark on communities and waterways from Upper Gwynedd Township all the way to Philadelphia,” said the secretary. “We’re pleased that Merck has agreed to measures that will improve operational oversight at its facility.”

The secretary said Merck’s willingness to address the environmental health of the region in which it does business was appreciated.

“In addition to addressing a serious environmental impact, this agreement recognizes the need for corporate accountability,” said McGinty. “Merck recognizes that with its responsibility for this disposal comes a responsibility to restore the environment, the neighborhood in which it operates, and to protect the community’s well-being. This settlement will help return the Wissahickon watershed to environmental health, provide the public with access to new areas of open space, and help restore the quality of life to the community.”

The settlement was negotiated by the U.S. Department of Justice, EPA and DEP on behalf of the federal and state agencies.

“The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania is grateful for the partnership we enjoyed with our federal counterparts at the Department of Justice and EPA in reaching this important settlement,” said McGinty.

In June 2006, Merck released potassium thiocyanate into the local sewer system. The compound passed through the disinfection process at Upper Gwynedd Township’s sewage treatment facility where it combined with chlorine and formed a cyanide compound.

The discharge made its way into the Wissahickon Creek, where it killed more than 1,000 fish, then into the Schuylkill River where it impacted drinking water operations and water recreation in Philadelphia for several days.

Under the settlement, the company will undertake three major remedial measures at its West Point facility. The upgrades will help Merck evaluate the effects of discharges to the sewer system, improve its wastewater management program by increasing storage capacity and enabling it to intercept spills, and institute a chemical inventory tracking system.

The $4.5 million Merck has agreed to pay for state environmental projects will be directed to the Whitemarsh Foundation to purchase and preserve approximately 100 acres of undeveloped land within the highly urbanized Wissahickon watershed.

Known as the Erdenheim Farm Angus Tract, the land will be maintained as open space and the settlement terms requires that: public access be maintained in the future; that 10 acres of the property be designated as wetlands, wet meadow or open water; and that the entire tract be protected from development.

Additionally, the $750,000 in penalties to the commonwealth will be paid as follows: $533,000 to the Clean Water Fund; $194,000 to the Safe Drinking Water Account, and $23,000 to the Solid Waste Abatement Fund.

As part of its settlement with EPA, Merck will contribute another $4.5 million to the Wissahickon watershed, providing funds to restore watershed features on both the Natural Lands Trust and Angus tracts of Erdenheim Farm; develop a drinking water early warning system for the city’s Queen Lane plant in cooperation with the Philadelphia Water Department; purchase and install an automated dissolved oxygen control at the Upper Gwynedd sewage treatment plant; and implement a variety of practices to improve the Wissahickon Creek’s water quality.

After the potassium thiocyanate incident, DEP and EPA conducted a joint multi-media inspection of Merck’s West Point facility during a series of visits from Nov. 28 through Dec. 8, 2006. The comprehensive inspection revealed violations associated with the facility’s handling of stormwater and industrial discharges and with its storage, inspection and containment of hazardous waste. Several minor violations of the Safe Drinking Water Act regulations also were noted, but no air quality, storage tank or radiation violations were found.

According to McGinty, from Pennsylvania’s perspective, the $10 million in upgrades planned by Merck under the civil settlement address the needed improvements that were identified in the multi-media inspections.

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