A chemical spill and fish kill 18 months ago that canceled recreation along the Wissahickon Creek and closed drinking-water intakes on the Schuylkill will cost Merck & Co. Inc. more than $20 million in fines, plant improvements and environmental projects that the pharmaceutical giant has agreed to undertake.
U.S. Attorney Pat Meehan announced the civil settlement today at Morris Arboretum, next to the Wissahickon.
As part of the agreement, Merck will spend $10 million to ensure that a similar spill - a chemical was dumped down the drain at a plant in West Point, Montgomery County - is not repeated.
"The settlement looks beyond the present," Meehan said, toward "protecting our water sources for future generations." He added: "When you get right down to it, no one should have to worry about whether that glass of kitchen water they're drinking will make somebody sick."
The consent decree - brokered by the U.S. Justice Department and Environmental Protection Agency, and the state Department of Environmental Protection - also addresses two subsequent spills that had much lesser impact.
In a prepared statement, Merck officials said they regretted the "unfortunate accident" and "we take full responsibility for it."
Besides paying for steps to avoid future spills, Merck will spend $9 million on a variety of environmental projects along the creek, and more than $1.5 million in fines.
The West Point plant - where Merck produces a common childhood vaccine that the company recalled two days ago because of potential contamination - will get improvements costing at least $10 million.
The centerpiece will be a computerized system to track every hazardous chemical as it moves through the facility. Meehan likened it to UPS Inc.'s package-tracking system.
Maya van Rossum, head of the Delaware Riverkeeper Network, an environmental-advocacy group, cautioned that, while the $20 million figure sounded high, she did not think it was enough to dissuade a corporation like Merck, whose 2006 revenue totaled $22.6 billion, from allowing another spill.
"We're so used to the companies getting off so easy that, when they're held to a slightly higher level of accountability, everyone is thrilled," van Rossum said.
She said that the $10 million in improvements to the plant should have occurred long ago and argued that Merck probably realized a financial gain in the interim. She also doubted that the penalty would reimburse taxpayers for the cost of the investigation.
Meehan said the settlement was among the most comprehensive of its kind for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania and a "significant victory for people who care about clean water in our region."
The top civil penalty could have been $2 million, he said. But by backing off, regulators were able to get other concessions from Merck, such as the environmental projects.
Those total about $9 million, and include $4.5 million to help buy 96 undeveloped acres, the so-called Erdenheim Farm Angus Tract, for public open space.
Hugh Moulton, chairman of the Whitemarsh Foundation, which is working to preserve the 450-acre farm, said the purchase would be the first in a series of steps. "This is a major, major victory for conservation and an extremely wonderful result for those of us who love and care about Erdenheim Farm," he said.
About $1.7 million will help create a wetlands and riparian buffer on Natural Lands Trust property on the farm.
"The scale and cost is something we would not have been able to do without this funding," trust president Molly Morrison said.
Robert Adams, director of stewardship for the Wissahickon Valley Watershed Association, which did not receive funds in the settlement, said it was larger than he expected, and he was "happy to see Erdenheim Farm protected and enhanced. The restoration projects there are expensive and valuable to the watershed."
The company also will fund a biomonitoring system that would alert the Philadelphia Water Department to potential problems with water in the creek and another system at the Upper Gwynedd plant that will improve the stream's dissolved oxygen levels, vital to aquatic life.
"We think those efforts go a long way to ensuring a similar spill won't happen in the future," EPA regional administrator Donald S. Welsh said.
The spill occurred June 13, 2006, in a vaccine lab. The chemical, potassium thiocyanate, flowed into the Upper Gwynedd sewage treatment plant, where it reacted with chlorine used in the disinfecting process and became a kind of liquid mustard gas, lethal to fish.
For nearly a week, no one knew what had happened, and state and federal officials worked frantically to discover the cause of the fish kill.
On June 20, Merck contacted the EPA to say it had been the source of the chemical.
About 1,000 fish died as a result of the spill, officials said. Philadelphia drinking-water intakes on the Schuylkill, just below the Wissahickon, were temporarily shut as a precaution. Recreational activity on the Wissahickon was canceled for nearly a month.
Then, on Aug. 8 and 9, the company released a substance used in vaccine production that caused an extensive foam discharge into the creek. More foam went into the creek Aug. 16 after Merck discharged cleaning agents into the system. The foam was nontoxic.
The 400-acre West Point plant has about 100 buildings for research and the manufacture of pharmaceutical products and vaccines. It employs 8,500 people.
In their statement, company officials said they believed the agreement was fair.
"Although the penalties for the incident are significant, we are grateful that the agreement also provides funding for many critical environmental projects that will benefit the people and the environment of Southeastern Pennsylvania," they said. "Taken together, these projects will bring sustainable and permanent benefits to our local environment."