Righting the Wrongs of Delaware’s Waterways

While ‘legacy’ pollutants like PCBs make the fight challenging, rivers and streams are getting cleaner

 

On spring weekends, the banks along Brandywine Creek are dotted with fishermen. Armed with rods and hip waders, they step out into the water and, with ritualistic precision, cast their lines into the swift, shallow current. It’s here that I meet Jason Veasey, on the north side of the creek a few hundred feet downstream from the city dam, where he was fishing for American shad and smallmouth bass.

“I caught a tiger trout here last week,” Veasey says, adding that this has been his favorite fishing spot for the past five years. “This is a spawning area for a lot of big fish. In another couple weeks it should be really hot.”

Veasey takes out his phone and shows me photos of the tiger trout, as well as an impressive 22-pound muskie, which he also caught last week.

“You get a lot of big fish out here,” he says.

But he doesn’t eat the fish. Nor do any of the fishermen I spoke with. Signs posted along the banks have warned against it ever since elevated levels of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) —carcinogens linked to liver cancer—were discovered lurking in the tidal portions of the Brandywine in 1996. Until last year, Red Clay Creek had been under a fish consumption advisory due to PCBs since 1986.

PCBs are a group of roughly two hundred related chemicals that were once used in a variety of industrial processes to create coolants, paints, cements, adhesives and sealants. The chemical’s sticky quality allows it to adhere to sediment, making it very difficult to eradicate from waterways.

PCBs are among the many “legacy” pollutants that continue to haunt Delaware’s waterways long after being outlawed following the passage of the Clean Water Act of 1972. Legacy pollutants, which include mercury, dioxins, furans and DDT, are so named because they remain in the environment long after being released. These are distinct from “visible” pollutants like sediment, agricultural waste and other runoff.

Currently, the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control (DNREC) considers more than 90 percent of Delaware’s waterways impaired, which means one or more pollutants prohibit the water from meeting quality standards for drinking, fishing, swimming and other designated uses. A statewide fish consumption advisory has been in place since 2007, recommending that anglers consume “no more than one 8-oz. meal per week of any fish species caught in Delaware’s fresh, estuarine and marine waters.”

But signs of progress abound. The Wilmington Riverfront is booming, in part because the Christina River no longer smells like raw sewage. That there are even fish in the Christina is a monumental achievement. Last year, Red Clay Creek was once again designated a Delaware trout-stocking stream. Moreover, “legacy” pollutants like PCBs are in decline, and in the last eight years Brandywine Creek and the Christina River “have shown decreases of PCB concentrations of 50 to 60 percent,” according to the most recent data compiled by DNREC and the Division of Public Health in the Department of Health and Social Services.

It may still be 20 years before PCB levels are low enough to lift fish consumption advisories, says Gerald Kauffman, director of the Water Resources Center at the University of Delaware. However, he adds, “The thing that should be stated is that there’s been a great improvement in the quality of the water in Delaware. If we were having this discussion 20 years ago, it would be a much more dire story.”

A Century of Contamination

“Now, this is not a scientific term,” Kauffman continues, “but the water sucked.”

Indeed it did. Delaware’s waterways are still recovering from a century’s worth of manufacturing and industrial contamination. To the surprise of many, it’s not entirely the fault of DuPont.

How did Delaware’s water get so bad?

Our state has a unique situation when it comes to our water supply. For over half a million people in northern Delaware, that water comes from three creeks—Brandywine, Red Clay and White Clay—that originate in southern Pennsylvania and empty into the Christina River, which empties into the Delaware River. Accordingly, everything that goes into those Pennsylvania creeks—all the sediment, agricultural fertilizers and other pollutants—eventually travels through Delaware in pursuit of the ocean.

The relatively small sizes of these streams mean that pollutants accumulate more quickly. Or, as explained by Kauffman, the quality of a stream is directly related to the quantity of water.

“I don’t want to get too scientific,” Kauffman says, “but there’s a lower dilution capacity in these smaller rivers and streams.”

The Brandywine Creek watershed is only 300 square miles, and the creek itself is only 20 miles long. White Clay and Red Clay are even smaller, with a combined watershed slightly greater than 100 square miles. At various spots, all three are shallow enough to walk across. That’s precious little water to dilute harmful contaminants.

Because of this unique water situation, Delaware has historically seen pollution in its waterways exacerbated by industry upstream in southern Pennsylvania. As early as the 1890s, there were reports of fish die-offs reminiscent of the Ten Plagues of Egypt.

“Many dead fish are now floating down the Brandywine,” reported Wilmington’s The Morning News on April 29, 1907. “BRANDYWINE WAS BLOOD RED COLOR,” read a headline in Wilmington’s Evening Journal on Feb. 17, 1909. The source of the pollution was discovered to be dyes from paper manufacturers upstream in Coatesville and Downingtown.

Lacking any meaningful federal oversight, chemical pollution persisted for decades. Even beneficial chemicals eventually turned bad. In 1945, it seemed like the dawn of a new era as the City of Wilmington touted its efforts to combat mosquitoes with DDT. Two decades later, the insecticide had become a menace.

In 1968, zinc was discovered in Red Clay Creek near the National Vulcanized Fiber (NVF) facility in Yorklyn, thus explaining the dead zones downstream. When wildlife officials attempted to stock the creek with trout, “The longest lifespan of the fish put in there was 23 seconds,” reported the Evening Journal on March 12, 1968. Zinc levels were 400 times higher than fish could survive.

The Christina River, once the industrial heart of Delaware, slowly decayed into a rustbelt mess of 84 brownfield sites. PCBs contaminated the waterways. The state began testing for mercury in 1970. In the 1990s, the Environmental Protection Agency singled out the now-shuttered Chemours Edge Moor facility north of Wilmington as one of the nation’s leading producers of dioxin and furans, which a quick Google search reveal to be “the most toxic chemicals known to science.”

Meanwhile, out-of-state pollution continues. Southeastern Pennsylvania has developed into a vibrant agricultural economy, resulting in contamination from farmland runoff, which includes fertilizer nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus. Once in the water, these nutrients give life to algae blooms that will eventually deplete the water’s oxygen supply, a process known as eutrophication.

In other words, Delaware’s water quality hasn’t just been shameful, dreadful and embarrassing. It’s downright absurd.

In 1968, zinc was discovered in Red Clay Creek near the National Vulcanized Fiber facility in Yorklyn. The plant has been shuttered for many years. Photo by Joe del Tufo

Funding Clean Water

“It’s all based on your starting point,” says Kauffman. “The water in these rivers was so bad decades ago that even a little bit of progress seems like a lot.”

Despite the persistence of harmful pollution in Delaware’s waterways, the 1970s marked a turning point. The creation of the Environmental Protection Agency in 1970 and the passage of the Clean Water Act of 1972 brought more robust federal oversight to environmental issues, ultimately leading to a federal ban on PCBs in 1978. In 1970, Delaware Gov. Russell Peterson, a DuPont-chemist-turned-staunch-environmentalist, established DNREC, and the following year he signed the Coastal Zone Act into law to protect coastal areas from heavy industrial development. Additional actions were taken over the next 40 years to minimize the risk of and exposure to pollutants in Delaware’s waterways.

Mitigating pollution was and remains the first step to stabilizing impaired waterways.

“The whole idea is to reduce the amount of pollution entering our rivers and streams; that way we aren’t fixing something only to have the problem return,” says Kenneth Kristl, professor of Law and director of the Environmental & Natural Resources Law Clinic at Widener University.

The next step, Kristl says, is much more difficult. “We must try to remove the contaminants or get pollution levels to a place where they aren’t going to be a risk.”

Minimizing that risk has become the clarion call of environmental regulators, researchers and activists across Delaware. But conservation costs money, far more than the state is currently allocating. In 2015, realizing the mismatch between the budget and environmental priorities, the Delaware Nature Society (DNS) launched the “Clean Water: Delaware’s Clear Choice” campaign, a statewide education and outreach effort to secure additional funding for clean water infrastructure, including improvements to wastewater systems, flood reduction initiatives, investments in drinking water quality and utilizing innovative technologies to remove toxic pollutants.

“Our water is the most essential thing that we have,” says Brenna Goggin, director of Advocacy & External Affairs at the DNS. Noting that clean water is the cornerstone of Delaware’s agricultural and tourism industries, he says, “We should do everything within our ability to protect and restore it.”

Goggin and Kauffman both served on the state’s Clean Water and Flood Abatement Task Force, established by the General Assembly in 2015 to identify water quality issues as well as sustainable funding mechanisms that will meet the needs for maintaining and improving Delaware’s waterways. According to Goggin, the tab could easily exceed $100 million per fiscal year.

In 2017, the Task Force proposed a multi-pronged solution for returning Delaware’s waterways to health, including water management, protecting open spaces, farmland preservation and agricultural regulation—basically anything to ensure that natural lands are not transformed into residential developments, which only exacerbates run-off pollution.

Although the Task Force was unable to secure the $100 million in annual sustainable funding needed to rehabilitate and maintain Delaware’s waterways, the effort had an impact, raising awareness among residents and elected officials that resulted in a $30 million commitment in the 2020 budget for clean water initiatives as well as open space and farmland preservation, an increase of about $10 million over previous budgets.

It’s not the resounding victory advocates were hoping for, but it’s a victory nonetheless, suggests Goggins. “By raising people’s awareness about the water quality issues facing our state and its residents, we’ve had a positive impact on getting additional dollars put towards clean water, building public support for additional dollars to go towards clean water, and building a coalition of businesses and nonprofit organizations to improve our water.”

A century-old dam just downstream from Washington Street Bridge is in the process of being removed by the City of Wilmington as part of a partnership known as Brandywine Shad 2020. Photo by Joe del Tufo

Removing Industrial Dams

The challenges facing Delaware’s waterways in the next 100 years will continue to be exacerbated by population growth and global climate change. But there’s cause for optimism. Fish have returned to the state’s creeks. The Christina River is no longer as polluted as it once was, allowing saltwater fish like the American shad, described by wildlife historians as “the fish that fed the nation’s founders,” to return to their freshwater spawning grounds in Brandywine Creek.

The next step is to ensure that those fish thrive, which is why there’s heavy construction equipment in the middle of Brandywine Creek. Even before legacy pollutants poisoned our waterways, American shad were unable to migrate very far up the Brandywine because of a series of 11 industrial dams, most of which are now obsolete, between Market Street in Wilmington and Brandywine Creek State Park near Rockland.

The first of those dams—a century-old relic just downstream from Washington Street Bridge—is in the process of being removed by the City of Wilmington as part of a public-private partnership known as Brandywine Shad 2020. Formed in 2017 by the Brandywine Conservancy, Hagley Museum and Library, the State of Delaware and the University of Delaware Water Resources Center, the partnership’s goal, as the name suggests, is to restore shad to Brandywine Creek by 2020.

“One thing that we learned is how quickly the river restores itself to a natural condition,” says Kauffman, who represents UD’s Water Resources Center on Brandywine Shad 2020. “Mother Nature can repair itself if left alone.”

The current dam removal is a sensitive, time-consuming project because it also involves the relocation of a city water main that the dam was protecting. Otherwise, removing a dam can take as little as half a day.

Not all of the 11 dams will be removed. Just a mile upstream from the current removal is the Wilmington Pump Station, the source of the city’s drinking water supply, which relies on the pooling created by the large dam at the head of the canal. In those situations, Kauffman explains, they’ll look into the feasibility of installing raceways, which are basically detours that will guide fish up and around the dam.

If Brandywine Shad 2020 succeeds, it will mark the first time in 300 years that fish will be able to swim all the way to Pennsylvania. That will be yet another sign of progress.

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