Merck faces fish-kill probe

Source: The Philadelphia Inquirer, June 23,2006
By: Sandy Bauers, Inquirer Staff Writer

It took Merck & Co. Inc. a week to discover and report a cyanide-related discharge that killed at least 1,000 fish in the Wissahickon Creek and prompted closure of Philadelphia’s water-intake valves.

The Environmental Protection Agency said yesterday that a Merck representative first notified the agency of the spill on Tuesday.

According to the EPA, a Merck official said that a week earlier, on June 13, a vaccine-research “pilot plant” had released about 25 gallons of potassium thiocyanate into the sewer system. The substance is commonly used in making vaccines and antibiotics and should not have been discharged into the sewer system, authorities said. They suspect the chemical combined with chlorine at the sewage-treatment plant and became more toxic to fish.

Merck now faces a continuing probe by state and federal officials, and some anger from the community.

“It’s hard to believe that a huge company like Merck would take this long to get to the bottom of such a serious problem,” said Tracy Carluccio of the Delaware Riverkeeper Network, a nonprofit environmental group.

Ray Kerins, executive director of public affairs for Merck, said, “We’re doing our best. That’s our home.” He acknowledged that his department had told reporters on Tuesday that the plant had had no unusual discharges. He said he and other Merck spokesmen did not know of the spill until yesterday when reporters were called.

“Nobody wants to go on the record with wrong information,” he said. “That was the information [we] had.”

EPA and state environmental investigators confirmed the discharge by visiting the plant, the headquarters of Merck Vaccines Division, on Wednesday, where they remained into the evening.

The EPA’s Jon M. Capacasa, director of the water-protection division, said that until the probe is done, officials cannot be sure the Merck discharge was the only one causing the fish kill. But “clearly,” he said, “this appears to be the leading source.”

A day after the discharge, about 1 p.m. June 14, workers at the Upper Gwynedd Township Wastewater Treatment Plant, which accepts wastewater from the Merck plant, began noticing problems with chlorine levels in their discharge. Then they discovered dead fish downstream of their outflow.

Initial tests showed the presence of a cyanide compound.

Merck spokeswoman Connie Wickersham said company officials did not discover the discharge any sooner because “we were looking for a different chemical. They had asked us to look for cyanide.”

When Merck expanded its investigation into other possible discharges and checked inventory records, officials discovered the potassium thiocyanate discharge, she said.

Wickersham said that the discharge “did not follow our protocols for proper waste disposal” and that Merck was “pursuing an active internal investigation.”

She said it was unclear whether a person had discharged the chemical or whether it was due to equipment failure.

She said Merck was still trying to verify whether any of the chemical still remained on site or whether it was all discharged.

She said she did not know the specific research the chemical was being used in, or whether it had been used regularly at the facility.

The EPA still had a lot of questions about the disposal.

Regarding the 25 gallons and whether it was enough to kill the fish, David McGuigan, associate director of the office of permits and enforcement, Atlantic region, said, “That’s not our number; we didn’t report that.” He said the agency was still investigating.

“What we do know is that it did kill the fish,” he said.

Capacasa said that the precise chemistry was not yet clear, but that “our best understanding is that the chlorination process combined with this cyanide-based chemical to create a new chemical, which we think is cyanogen chloride, which is toxic to fish.”

Mark Michalovic, consultant for educational services at the Chemical Heritage Foundation in Philadelphia, agreed that potassium thiocyanate, when combined with chlorine, could form cyanogen chloride, which is even more toxic to fish.

Capacasa of the EPA said the compound should have been disposed of in a proper treatment center or landfill.

He said the investigation was “certainly a factor” that prompted Merck’s notification of the disposal.

He said that the chemical was “in use in a number of their laboratories” and that the EPA was “doing a thorough review of their prior disposal practice.”

The good news, he said, is that “all indications are that this is not a problem that is persisting. The fish are back. Testing for total cyanide in the river is very clean.”

He said the general provisions of the Clean Water Act called for penalties of up to $32,500 per violation, per day.

State Department of Environmental Protection spokesman Dennis Harney said conditions on the Wissahickon also violated the state clean-streams law, which carries maximum penalties of $10,000 per day per violation.

“Something like this would most likely constitute multiple violations,” he said.

Wickersham said vaccine production had not been affected at the plant, where about 8,000 people work.

The vaccine facility produces several Merck vaccines, including one new product scheduled for launch soon: Gardasil for cervical cancer. It also produces Rotateq for rotavirus and Varivax for chicken pox, among others.

The fish kill prompted authorities to warn the public to avoid recreational contact with the Wissahickon Creek and a segment of the Schuylkill.

On Monday, the Wissahickon suffered another blow when the Ambler Wastewater Treatment Plant dumped 55,000 gallons of untreated sewage into the creek.

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