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Interactive Map Shows Promise and Peril for Delaware River Basin

Eternal vigilance, it has often been said, is the price of liberty. It is also the price of a clean and healthy environment.

Fifty years ago, major American waterways such as the Delaware River – which begins in upstate New York and carves the border of Pennsylvania and New Jersey on its way to Delaware Bay – were on life support. Centuries of mining, industrial activity and sewage dumping had degraded the Delaware River so much that, according to the Delaware River Basin Commission:

The river's water was so foul that it would turn the paint of ships brown as they traveled through or were docked for any period of time. People were sickened by simply the smell of the river. Additionally, there were parts of the estuary that were considered dead zones, almost or completely devoid of oxygen needed for the survival of fish and other aquatic life. 

A half-century later, the signs of recovery in the Delaware River are everywhere. The dead zones are (mostly) gone and industrial pollution has been vastly reduced. People today flock to the river for festivals and recreation instead of holding their noses and turning their backs. The river’s recovery is the product of the determined efforts of local residents, the investment of billions of dollars in improved sewage infrastructure, and aggressive government action to curtail pollution.

But the job is far from done. Today, we at Frontier Group and our partners at Environment America Research & Policy Center are unveiling a new interactive map that illustrates the continued, serious threats facing water quality in the Delaware River and its tributaries.

The map brings together thousands of data points from more than a dozen federal, state and local government databases to provide as complete a picture of water quality threats in the Delaware basin as possible. To me, the map tells three important stories:

  • What’s past is not entirely past: Pollution from industrial facilities and sewage treatment plants was a major cause of the Delaware River’s degradation in the 19th and 20th centuries. And while that pollution has been dramatically reduced, it has not gone away.

The interactive map shows discharges from sewage treatment plants in the Delaware basin as well as the location of combined sewer overflows – pipes that can carry raw sewage directly into the river during times of heavy rainfall. It also shows the locations of hundreds of industrial facilities permitted to release pollution directly to the basin’s waterways. Included among them are facilities that rank in the top 10 percent nationally for the toxicity of their water releases as reported to the EPA’s Toxics Release Inventory. Along with hazardous waste sites and abandoned mines – also depicted on the map – the pollution coming from these facilities shows that the job of cleaning up “legacy” sources of contamination in the Delaware is far from finished. Slacking on environmental enforcement or cutting funding for environmental programs (as President Trump has repeatedly proposed) could result in the reemergence of problems the region had long ago believed it had put in its rearview mirror.

The Delaware River basin interactive map depicts industrial dischargers that release pollutants, including toxic pollutants, into the region's waterways. 

  • Catastrophic threats lurk: Fossil fuel infrastructure is not always the first thing that comes to mind when people think of water quality threats. Pipelines, tankers, tank farms and other pieces of fossil fuel infrastructure usually do their job of carrying petroleum products safely from one point to another. But when they fail, the results are tragic and the damage to waterways long-lasting. In 2004, for example, the Athos I, a tanker transporting crude oil, was ripped by an anchor while preparing to dock at a refinery. The ship spilled more than 263,000 gallons of oil into the Delaware River and restoration efforts continued for more than 10 years.

The interactive map shows the extensive fossil fuel infrastructure – pipelines, freight rail lines, terminals and refineries – woven throughout the Delaware River region, infrastructure that is even now in the process of being expanded. We hope that seeing the full extent of this infrastructure will challenge residents not only to demand strong regulations to protect public health and safety today, but also to envision how much better the region could look tomorrow without it – a future we can have if we move swiftly to embrace clean, renewable energy.

  • Everything is connected: In addition to enabling users to find out more about individual sources of pollution in their neighborhoods, the Delaware River basin interactive map also invites users to explore connections between sources of pollution and their impacts. Searching for a location on the map reveals not just nearby pollution threats, but also those in upstream watersheds. Searching for a water utility reveals sources of pollution in the watersheds that supply water to your tap. And in some locations, users can explore the reasons why their local waterways are unfit for swimming, fishing or drinking, and then identify potential sources of that pollution.

The interactive map is far from a complete picture of water quality challenges in the Delaware basin. Some pollution threats – such as pesticide runoff, factory farms, and “contaminants of emerging concern” such as pharmaceuticals and household chemicals – were either difficult to document or difficult to depict on a map. Our work with government pollution databases revealed numerous errors and outliers in the original source data, as well as examples of state environmental agencies failing to keep key databases fully up to date. We expect that the interactive map will spark as many questions as it provides answers – and hope that those questions lead to the collection and dissemination of better, more complete and more up-to-date environmental information to the public.

The development of this map involved 18 months of work by an incredible team of people, including Frontier Group’s Alana Miller and Elizabeth Berg; former Frontier Group analyst Kat Eshel; the creative team at ZevRoss Spatial Analysis; the William Penn Foundation, which made the project possible; numerous experts and activists in the Delaware River basin; and our partners at Environment America Research & Policy Center.

Eternal vigilance may be the price of a clean environment, but effective vigilance requires the ability to see threats and react to them before the damage is too great. We hope this new interactive map will help citizens, elected officials, and others in the Delaware River basin to see and understand the challenges facing water quality in the basin, boosting the effectiveness of their continuing work to restore the Delaware River and its tributaries to health.