The Delaware River Basin is a vital ecosystem that provides drinking water for millions of people and supports diverse wildlife, recreation, and agriculture in Pennsylvania, New York, and New Jersey. Unfortunately, industrial activities in the basin contaminate the water with toxic pollutants, leading to a variety of negative impacts on human health and the environment and endangering industrial workers.
Wastewater treatment plants are one major source of industrial pollution in the Delaware River. These facilities often lack the capacity to properly treat industrial waste, leading to the release of harmful chemicals. Leakage and spills from pipelines and storage facilities also significantly pollute the Delaware. These incidents can release large quantities of toxic chemicals into the river, leading to fish kills and other negative impacts.
Industrial activities in the region also contribute to nutrient pollution, which can lead to the growth of harmful algal blooms and low oxygen conditions that make the river inhospitable to fish and other aquatic life.
Given the importance of the Delaware River, it is crucial for policymakers at all levels of government to prevent pollution and protect this valuable resource for all communities in the region. Some general solutions include:
- Stricter regulations on industrial discharges
- Increased monitoring and enforcement of existing rules
- Investment in new technologies to reduce pollution
More specifically, the Delaware River Basin Commission (DRBC), the interstate agency that oversees the health and environmental integrity of the watershed, should strengthen regulations to prevent toxic chemicals from being released into the basin. More robust regulations should include implementing stricter permit requirements for industrial facilities, monitoring the discharge of toxic chemicals, and increasing penalties for violations.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) also plays a key role in protecting the watershed from toxic chemicals. The agency is responsible for enforcing federal environmental laws and regulations to protect the quality of surface water, including the Delaware River and its tributaries.
The EPA sets water quality standards for the Delaware River Basin and works with state and local agencies to monitor and enforce these standards. The agency also conducts research and provides technical assistance to help reduce pollution in the basin.
Beyond protecting downstream communities, such measures would benefit another important constituency: workers in industries that are the sources of toxic pollution. Workers in the manufacturing, agriculture, and construction sectors face some of the highest levels of exposure to toxic chemicals on a regular basis. Exposure to these chemicals can cause both acute and chronic health effects, depending on the type and level of exposure.
Acute effects can include symptoms such as headaches, dizziness, nausea, and respiratory problems. These symptoms can make it difficult for workers to perform their job duties and can lead to lost time from work. In severe cases, acute exposure can cause immediate and potentially life-threatening health effects.
Chronic exposure can lead to long-term health effects, such as cancer, reproductive problems, neurological disorders, and respiratory problems. These health effects can have a significant impact on workers’ quality of life and can result in long-term disability or death.
Ideally, tighter pollution standards would encourage industries to adopt better practices that limit worker exposure — or better still, discourage companies from using hazardous chemicals altogether.
While pollution prevention strategies may protect workers, they underscore how inextricably intertwined worker and environmental protections are. This is a lesson that Americans have witnessed repeatedly in recent years, from the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010 to the ongoing catastrophe of the toxic train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio.
It is also important given how fundamentally inadequate our major national worker protection law, the Occupational Safety and Health Act, has proven to be in protecting workers against hazardous chemicals. Until our government strengthens the act, environmental laws such as the Clean Water Act and the Toxic Substances Control Act are likely to offer the best options for safeguarding workers.