Colonists started polluting the Delaware River as far back as the late 1700s, when they emptied sewers, slaughterhouses, and tanneries into it. By the 1950s, it was one of the most polluted waterways in the world.
But the massive cleanup that started in the 1970s with the Clean Water Act is now threatened by a proposal to slash the Environmental Protection Agency's budget, says a report by the nonprofit advocacy organizations PennEnvironment and Frontier Group. The river is a source of drinking water for 15 million people.
"We've made real progress to clean up and restore the Delaware River with the support and guidance of the U.S. EPA," said Stephanie Wein, the clean-water advocate for PennEnvironment, "but this budget proposal would put all of that in jeopardy."
Wein released the 25-page report outlining what the Trump administration plan could mean for the region during a news conference Tuesday at the Fairmount Water Works, overlooking the Schuylkill and Boathouse Row. The Schuylkill is the largest tributary emptying into the Delaware River and is a key part of its watershed.
The administration has proposed a 31 percent budget cut for the EPA in the fiscal year that starts Oct. 1, which would reduce the agency's current $8 billion spending plan by about $2.6 billion.
The House Appropriations Committee has approved a bill that would cut the EPA budget to about $7.5 billion. The agency's Region 3 office in Philadelphia will potentially be among the biggest hit by buyouts.
PennEnvironment says the region, covering Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware, and New York, stands to lose collectively an estimated $20 million in grants for water pollution, drinking-water protection, and non-point-source control and enforcement. Much of that is for Delaware River watershed programs, Wein said.
"Even if the president's proposed cuts are scaled back by Congress, they would still have profound negative impacts on the agency's ability to deter pollution," the report states.
Grants to the states are used to help industry figure out how to use less toxic materials, assist farmers in reducing fertilizers and pesticides, support Schuylkill restoration from acid mine drainage, and to control runoff containing road salts, oil, and sediment. The report cites examples of how EPA money has been used to aid waterways connected to the Delaware:
An EPA grant in 2015 for $450,000 was used to clean up acid draining into the Schuylkill from the abandoned Silver Creek Mine in Schuylkill County. That program would be eliminated under the Trump proposal.
From 2009 to 2014, raw sewage flowed into the Delaware River when rainstorms overflowed a wastewater treatment facility operated by Delaware County Regional Water Quality Control Authority (DELCORA). After reaching a settlement with the EPA and the state, DELCORA paid a $1.375 million penalty and agreed to spend $200 million over 20 years to end routine releases of raw sewage.
DuPont's Edge Moore facility on the Delaware River near Wilmington, which manufactured titanium dioxide "super-white," a pigment for paint and sunscreen, was closed in 2016. The process generated dioxin, some of which contaminated a 500,000-ton waste pile. The company agreed to pay a $500,000 penalty and seal the pile.
The EPA took over cleanup of the Shieldalloy Superfund site, within the Delaware River basin, in Newfield, Gloucester County, after efforts languished for nearly 20 years. The Shieldalloy Metallurgical Corp. left behind radioactive waste and a plume of chromium in groundwater. In 2016, the EPA negotiated a settlement with Shieldalloy for $5.6 million to clean up the area.
The proposed budget would eliminate funds to the Partnership for the Delaware Estuary, which, along with other partners, planted millions of bushels of clam and oyster shells to create new habitat and stabilize oyster harvests in New Jersey.
Officials at the news conference, including U.S. Rep. Dwight Evans, State Rep. Donna Bullock, city Councilman Derek Green and Christine Knapp, director of the city's Office of Sustainability, all expressed concerns over what the cuts would mean for the watershed. Rosanne Mistretta of the Tookany/Tacony-Frankford Watershed Partnership and Maura McCarthy of Friends of the Wissahickon also spoke.
"When you threaten to cut that budget, you are threatening a lifeline to communities," Bullock said.
She noted that 1.5 million people use the Schuylkill for drinking water and that 30 percent of the state Department of Environmental Protection's budget comes from EPA grants. The agency already has faced cuts "year after year after year," Bullock said, and the state cannot afford to pick up the slack.