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The Delaware River Is Not What it Used to Be - That's the Good News!

ATTN: Op-Ed Editors

The Delaware River Is Not What it Used to Be - That's the Good News!

By Carol R. Collier
March 2000

The release of a recent report on the health of the Delaware River and other national waterways made for splashy headlines, but failed to tell both sides of a complex story.

The document, titled "Poisoning Our Water: How the Government Permits Pollution," was issued by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group (PIRG).

In interpreting data generated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, PIRG concludes that of all U.S. rivers, the Delaware in 1997 received "the largest amount of carcinogen releases."

PIRG did this without apparently considering the river's "assimilative capacity," or its ability to dilute or break down pollutants to a point where they do not exceed water quality standards.

According to PIRG's methodology, if you dump ten pounds of a nitrate compound (by far the most common industrial discharge) in both a 20-gallon fish tank and the Delaware River, both bodies of water are equally polluted. PIRG does not take into account the size of the water body receiving the pollutant.

Such pseudo science ignores the truth - the Delaware River isn't what it used to be!

Once foul smelling and oxygen starved along its tidal reach downstream of Trenton, N.J., the Delaware, from its headwaters in New York State's Catskill Mountains to the Delaware Bay, today supports year-round fish populations, offering excellent trout, bass, walleye, striper, shad, and herring fisheries. Pleasure-craft marinas line waterfronts once visited only by commercial vessels. The river and many of its tributaries are flanked by attractive greenways and parks.

The fact is government programs are in place to protect existing water quality and address problems that still remain on a river that is under a lot of pressure - its lower reaches are bordered by heavy industry and the second largest oil refining-petrochemical center in the United States.

The success of those programs, which are designed to achieve both economic vitality and a healthy environment, are well documented.

For almost 40 years, the Delaware River Basin Commission, a pioneer in environmental protection, has partnered with other government agencies and private organizations to clean up the Delaware and its feeder streams. Business and industry also have pitched in.

The commission started a toxics management program more than a decade ago. Two months ago it took an important step to ensure that water quality standards for certain toxic pollutants in the tidal Delaware are met as part of its continuing program to protect human health and aquatic life.

Two of the pollutants, 1,2 dichloroethane (DCE) and tetrachloroethene (PCE), have been identified by the EPA as probable human carcinogens. Both are solvents used in the manufacture of chemicals and in the dry cleaning business.

The fact that the commission is addressing these two substances as well as other toxins found in the river can not be found in the PIRG report. Nor is there any mention of the many other water quality success stories that can be tied to the work of the commission and the four basin states (New York, Pennsylvania, Delaware and New Jersey), as well as other government agencies and private groups that over the years have made water pollution abatement a top priority.

The truth is that competing water uses such as recreation and commerce will always defy the absolute resolution of all the problems facing the Delaware or any other major river.

Nevertheless, the Delaware today is the cleanest it's been in 100 years. And it's getting cleaner.

That, too, should make headlines.


Carol R. Collier is executive director of the Delaware River Basin Commission


Contact: Clarke Rupert 609-883-9500 ext. 260, e-mail: clarke.rupert@drbc.state.nj.us