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EPA Identifies Pharmaceutical Research Facility as Source of Cyanide-Related Discharge to Wissahickon Creek

Release Date: 06/22/2006
Contact Information: Roy Seneca (215) 814-5567

PHILADELPHIA – The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has identified a Merck and Co. pharmaceutical research facility in West Point, Pa. as a source of the cyanide-related discharge that killed more than 1,000 fish in the Wissahickon Creek last week.

In the process of an investigation by EPA’s mid-Atlantic region and the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (PADEP), a representative from the Merck facility notified EPA on Tuesday that about 25 gallons of potassium thiocyanate was released into the sewer system on the morning of June 13 from a vaccine research pilot plant. The representative noted this discharge was not in accordance with the company’s protocols for proper waste disposal. Such discharges are also regulated by EPA’s national pretreatment program.

Potassium thiocyanate is a chemical compound that includes cyanide. It has a wide range of applications including use in the manufacture of industrial chemicals, pharmaceuticals and pesticides.

The disclosure by Merck, in conjunction with earlier analysis of water samples taken from the sewer collection system and stream, indicate that the discharge from the Merck facility was tied to the fish kill. The discharge is believed to have entered the Upper Gwynedd wastewater treatment plant through its sewage collection system, interacted with chlorine and emerged in the Wissahickon Creek.

Fish were killed by discharges coming from the wastewater treatment facility. The fish kill prompted health advisories to avoid recreational contact with the Wissahickon and a segment of the Schuylkill River. The advisory was lifted for the Schuylkill last Friday, but remains in place on the Wissahickon.

EPA will continue a full investigation in cooperation with PADEP and other government agencies, and will take appropriate action to help ensure that such a release does not recur.

EPA Regional Administrator Donald S. Welsh praised the investigative team that includes multiple EPA mid-Atlantic region divisions and PADEP. Welsh also noted the critical assistance provided by other government agencies including the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission, the Philadelphia Water Department and Upper Gwynedd Township.