Merck settles Clean Water Act violations

Dec. 17, 2007
Violations occur at Pennsylvania pharmaceutical plant.

SANTA ANA, California--Merck, the global pharmaceutical research company, has agreed to resolve violations of federal and state water pollution control regulations arising from spills including a June 2006 spill at its pharmaceutical plant outside of Philadelphia.

The announcement was made recently by Pat Meehan, U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Pa., Ronald J. Tenpas, acting assistant attorney general for the Justice Department's Environment Natural Resources Division, the EPA, and the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection.

In one of the most comprehensive remediation settlement agreements for the Eastern District of PA, Merck will pay $10 million to put into place systems that will prevent future dangerous discharges at their facility. Merck will spend approximately $9 million for extensive environmental projects.

A consent decree requires Merck to pay $1.575 million in penalties and civil damages for past violations divided as follows: $750,000 to the US; $750,000 to the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and $75,000 to the Pennsylvania Fish Boat Commission.

"Perhaps more than anything else, this settlement says to every company that discharges dangerous chemicals as part of its operations that it is accountable to the environment and the community," said Meehan. "Because when you get right down to it, no one should have to wonder, when they walk into the kitchen for a glass of water, if what they are about to drink is going to make them or their children sick."

"Merck's actions led to an extensive fish-kill and caused the Philadelphia Water Dept to temporarily shut down its drinking water operations," said Tenpas. "This settlement ensures that Merck will take steps to prevent future illegal discharges including installing an early warning system to protect drinking water."

The Merck facility, a pharmaceutical plant located in West Point Pa., houses pharmaceutical and vaccine research, plus the manufacturing of pharmaceutical products and vaccines. The facility consists of approximately 400 acres, and 110 buildings employing approximately 8,500 employees.

Merck discharges pollutants from this facility to the Upper Gwynedd Township Publicly Owned Treatment Works. The treated effluent is discharged into the Wissahickon Creek, a tributary of the Schuylkill River.

The federal court complaint, filed today, along with the settlement papers, alleges that Merck violated the Clean Water Act with several discrete discharges that caused numerous pass-through and interference violations:

* On June 13, 2006, Merck discharged potassium thiocyanate that reacted with the chlorination at UGT POTW and after discharge caused extensive fish kills in the Wissahickon Creek on June 14-15; also causing the Philadelphia Water Dept to close its Schuylkill River drinking water intake on June 14-15; and causing PA DEP to issue health advisories to ban all recreational uses on the Wissahickon Creek for the period June 14 to July 10, 2006.

* On Aug. 8-9, 2006, Merck allegedly discharged a large batch of spent substrate used for vaccine production which when treated at UGT POTW caused extensive foam discharge into the Wissahickon Creek.

* On Aug 16, 2006, Merck allegedly discharged a large amount of cleaning agents that when treated at UGT POTW caused extensive foam discharge into the Wissahickon Creek.

The proposed consent decree includes interim measures undertaken already to: prevent discharges without pre-approval; create a tracking system for waste handling, create a task force to assess the system throughout the facility, and impose increased testing and assessment tools for waste stream.

The decree contains Merck's commitment to long-term remedial measures including: a prevention program, an enhanced wastewater management program, and a chemical management accountability system for the facility. The estimated costs of these measures are in excess of $10 million.

"The resolution of this case and its special projects will bring both short and long-term environmental benefits to the community and the Wissahickon," said Donald S. Welsh, EPA's mid-Atlantic regional administrator. "When you consider that the source of 40 percent of Philadelphia's drinking water is just downstream of this facility, these improvements and Merck's environmental accountability has implications extending beyond the boundaries of its facility."

The proposed consent decree also includes extensive environmental projects designed to improve the water quality and/or protect the Wissahickon as a source of drinking water.

Merck has committed to: restoration of a segment of the Wissahickon Creek to improve the water quality of this key tributary of the Schuylkill River; creation of a wetlands on a 10-acre parcel of property adjacent to the creek; purchase and installation of an aquatic biomonitoring system that monitors fish activity to give the Philadelphia Water Dept an early warning system regarding materials in the Wissahickon Creek that may constitute a threat to the drinking water; the purchase and installation of an enhanced Automated Dissolved Oxygen Controls at the Upper Gwynedd Treatment Plant.

Each supplemental environment project is designed to improve water quality and/or protect the Wissahickon as a source of drinking water.

In addition the decree calls for Merck to contribute $4.5 million toward the purchase of a parcel of land adjacent to the creek that will have restricted use and open space easements in perpetuity.

The proposed consent decree is subject to a 30-day public comment period and final court approval.