PITTSBURGH — For 40 years a toxic waste dump has sat on the banks of the Allegheny River, slowly leaking a mix as potent as pure ammonia. Now, environmental groups are preparing to file a federal lawsuit to force a cleanup.
In the early 1900s, the Pittsburgh Plate Glass factory at Ford City was the largest of its kind in the world, employing thousands of workers about 40 miles northeast of Pittsburgh. The output was so great that the plant built a pipeline under the river to transport wastes to a dump site a little downstream.
After decades of declining production the plant closed for good in 1992, but the dump site remained. PennEnvironment and a local chapter of the Sierra Club say PPG was first ordered to clean up the waste in 1971, but has failed to do so. The PPG plant was in the heart of Ford City, but the surrounding area is rural.
Now, a federal lawsuit against PPG is in the works.
"The time for action to clean up this site is now," said Erika Staaf of PennEnvironment. "Our environmental laws are meaningless if polluters can violate them with impunity. When persistent violations are not addressed by the government, our federal environmental laws allow private citizens to enforce the law."
"Sadly, given Pennsylvania's industrial heritage, there are many more cases likely out there, where there's ongoing pollution that needs to be addressed," Staaf added.
PennEnvironment said in documents for the planned lawsuit that the waste lagoons cover almost 77 acres, and that they leak arsenic, chromium, lead, manganese, copper, zinc, mercury, and other toxic compounds into the river. The pH level of some of the leakage is as high as 12.69, the group said, about the same as bleach. Ammonia has a pH of about 11.
PPG said in a statement Thursday that it believes the planned lawsuit is without merit, and that "statements made by representatives of PennEnvironment and the Sierra Club are false and misleading."
In 2010, PPG installed an interim collection and treatment system that the state Department of Environmental Protection approved, PPG said. The company said that DEP approved PPG's treatment plan and schedule last November, in which they "committed to develop a final plan to address the infiltration and drainage."
Amanda Witman, a DEP spokeswoman, confirmed PPG's comments.
But after 40 years, an answer of "soon" just isn't enough, environmentalists said.
Ned Mulchay, a local attorney and the former Waterkeeper for the Three Rivers environmental group, has viewed the waste site from the river.
"It's not like the site is quarantined. It didn't look like what they had installed kept people away from all of the danger," Mulchay said.
Mulchay said the leakage has such a high pH it could cause burns to the skin. On one trip to the site he saw a recent campfire that someone had made near a bleached area.
"A pH of 12 is absurd in nature," Mulchay said. "PPG have known this is an issue since the 1970s. They've been fighting this with DEP longer than I've been alive."
John Stolz, a microbiologist at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, said he also visited the site a few years ago and was alarmed by what he saw.
"It was absolutely remarkable. The whole hillside was just barren," Stolz said. "Local folks were saying you couldn't do any fishing around there."
Susan Boser, a water quality expert at the Penn State University College of Agricultural Sciences, said it's hard to say what the danger is from the site without knowing more details about the volume of waste being leaked. She added that the river will eventually dilute the leakage down to more normal pH levels.
"I couldn't say for sure how far from the site it would be safe," Boser said.
Stolz said he's "really surprised" that the final cleanup plan for the site isn't finished.