Delaware’s worst environmental scandal? Unpublic Hearing March 24th.

[Update:  We have since learned that the Hearing Officer has agreed to keep the public comment period open until April 24th, at the request of Delaware Audubon and Delaware Sierra.]

Reject Jack Markell’s latest dirty deal with the Delaware City Refinery.

After 58 years of river/bay destruction, the time for cooling towers is NOW.

On Tuesday, March 24th, at six pm, at Gunning Bedford Middle School, 801 Cox Neck Road (West of Delaware City)  the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control (DNREC) is holding one of its mostly bogus “public hearings” on a water permit for the Delaware City Refinery.  The subject is a “draft permit” to allow the refinery to keep polluting the Delaware River and vacuuming the marine life out of it.  The permit also has implications for air quality because shortages of cooling water have lead to some of the largest “upsets” at the refinery.

A long-expired permit

The so called “National Pollution Discharge Elimination System” (NPDES) permits are issued for a term of five years but the refinery permit expired on August 31, 2002, 13 years ago.  Now, having ignored it’s own technical determinations, the Markell administration plans to issue a new permit that does not comply with the Clean Water Act and will allow the fish-killing and chemical pollution to continue.  The US Environmental Protection Agency is expected to go along.

The “Public Notice,” the “Draft Permit,” (58 pages) and a “Fact Sheet” (26 pages) describing the permit are here.  Also see “DNREC, Delaware City Refining Co. reach settlement for water-related violations that includes installing improved fish return system,” a press release dated December 9, 2014. This “Settlement” appears to contradict the DNREC’s own “Best Technology Available” determination and seems intended to nullify the public hearing process by making a decision in advance of the public hearing.

(Note:  The public notice says “It is requested that those interested in presenting statements at the hearing register at least five days in advance of the hearing by mail or email. That registration and written statements should be addressed to:
Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control
P.O. Box 1401, 89 Kings Highway
Dover, Delaware 19901

There is NO legal basis for demanding registration in advance and you NO NOT have to do this.)

A for-real, but concealed, DNREC document

The most interesting and useful official document, dishonestly NOT posted by the DNREC, but helpfully posted by the Sierra Club, which is doing a good job on this issue, is this:  “Fact Sheet, Attachment A BTA Determination – NPDES Permit Requirements For Cooling Water Intake and Discharges at Delaware City Refinery and Power Plant (DCR)” (55 pages) If you have time and energy for reading only on document, this one is recommended.  A few quotes from this:

“The Department estimates that the DCR has a net refining revenue of $1,500,000 to $2,600,000 per day, depending on market conditions.” [page 4]

“In the past, the DCR has curtailed or completely shut down production, up to days at a time, due to problems with its existing intake structure:
–   siltation,
–   unusual tides,
–    unusual winds,
–   freezing, and
–   recirculation of heated water from the discharge into the intake.” [page 4]

“Further, past DCR operators have cited those cooling water intake problems as cause for an emergency dredging permit request, for NPDES permit noncompliance, and for excess air pollution emissions.” [page 4]

“The BTA cost will increase costs by
–   $0.068 (6.8¢) per barrel to refine crude oil,
–   $0.0016 (0.16¢) per gallon to produce gasoline,
–   $2.25 per year per consumer for total petroleum products.” [page4]

“The DCR is a significant part of the larger problem of the cumulative impact of multiple large cooling water intakes in the Delaware River.” [page 5]

“Comparing “Conditional Mortality Rates,” a 1 mgd intake volume at DCR kills 3 times as many fish as a 1 mgd intake volume at Salem. The Salem intake volume is 3,024 mgd (vs. DCR‘s 452 mgd), but does have some improvements, relative to the DCR intake. The total “conditional mortality rate” for the combined effect of the DCR and the Salem Nuclear Power Plant intakes was 56% for Striped Bass.” [page 6]

“This once-through cooling system has contributed to the depletion of the Delaware Estuary fishery by destroying many millions of organisms per year for just the four species studied in detail ….” [page 7]

“… EPA‘s analysis leads to the general conclusion that converting an existing, open-cycle cooling system to a closed-cycle cooling system with wet cooling towers would be the best performing technology in this industrial category in terms of reducing entrainment and impingement.” [page 12]

“As discussed above, the highest feasible reduction that can be achieved by closed-cycle cooling using wet mechanical draft cooling towers at the DCR will need to be determined based on certain site-specific factors. DNREC has written the Final Permit to require 90% reductions that would be practicable and reasonably achievable for conditions at the DCR, based on an optimized closed-cycle cooling system for that facility.” [Emphasis added by Muller. Obviously this is NOT the draft permit being presented by the DNREC.] (page 12)

“At DCR, entrainment impacts are much larger than impingement impacts, by both measurements of  “Total number of organisms” and “Total Equivalent Adults.” Besides cooling towers, few technology alternatives (aquatic barriers, fine-mesh wedgewire screens, and fine mesh traveling screens) have the potential to achieve even the lower 60% entrainment reductions mentioned in the remanded Phase II regulations.” [page 25]

“The Department has drafted the NPDES Permit to require entrainment and impingement mortality reductions comparable to levels achievable by closed-cycle cooling, but has not required the installation or use of closed-cycle cooling per se.” [page 30)

“The Wetlands and Subaqueous Lands Section understands that the Habitat Replacement offset was used in lieu of the construction of cooling towers. The WSLS considers the construction of cooling towers to be necessary for the Refinery to mitigate for impingement and entrainment impacts in accordance with the “Regulations Governing the Use of Subaqueous Lands.” As such, the WSLS does not deem this mitigation appropriate. [page 55]

The point, of course, is that DNREC technical staff fully understand what is wrong with the present situation and how to fix it.  So why isn’t the DNREC calling for a real fix?  Probably for the same reason the refinery, under various owners, has been able to dodge the bullet for over fifty years:  Enormous political clout.

It is important to realize up front that DNREC public hearings, as presently held, are NOT intended to provide a meaningful opportunity for the public to participate in decision-making.  A hearing like this is only held because it is legally required, and AFTER the draft permit has already been negotiated between the polluter and the DNREC.  Just how much of a farce DNREC public hearings have become is illustrated by this:  The “public comment period” on the refinery permit is scheduled to end with the hearing.  But this provides no opportunity for people to incorporate what they might learn at the hearing into comments.  Green Delaware always urges that the public comment period be kept open for two weeks after a transcript of the hearing is made available to the public.

Suggesting that this is Delaware’s biggest environmental scandal, in a state with so many of them, is a stretch.  My thinking:

The Delaware City Refinery was started up in 1956/1957 by Tidewater OIl Company, owned by J. Paul Getty.  It operated under various owners until being shut down on Nov 20, 2009.  The refinery was restarted under new ownership on or before October 7, 2001, ending some 23 months of blessed relief from air and water pollution.  Governor Black Jack Markell engineered the restart of the refinery without an iota of public participation.

The refinery processed “heavy sour crude,” meaning that the oil was high in sulfur.  The oil mostly came up the Delaware River in ships and was unloaded at a dock in Delaware City.  Currently, the refinery seems to rely mostly on oil produced in North Dakota and Alberta, delivered by “bomb trains.”

Throughout it’s 58 year history, the Delaware City Refinery has been one of the more environmentally damaging industrial facilities in the world.  Environmental impacts have included massive amounts of air pollution, water pollution, groundwater pollution, and physical destruction of marine life.

Over the years, more air pollution control equipment has been installed at the refinery and emissions, while still very high, are far less than when the refinery started up.  Chemical pollution of the water has been reduced somewhat by improvements in waste water treatment.  On the other hand, there has been little reduction in the physical destruction of marine life, because few changes have been made in the water intake system.

The basic design of the cooling system seems almost perfectly designed to maximize the capture and destruction of marine life.  An intake channel (sometimes called Cedar Creek) runs perpendicular to the flow of water in the Delaware river, which is so shallow that much dredging is needed and water flow can be cut off by weather conditions.  This channel leads to an intake structure with moving screens.  The screens are intended to keep fish and other objects from getting into the cooling system and plugging it up.  but there is little escape for marine critters from this “fish trap” system.   Smaller objects such as fish eggs and larvae pass through the pipes, pumps, and condenser tubes where they are cooked.  The overall effect of this is to reduce populations of fish, crabs, and other marine critters in the Delaware river and estuary.  The technical terms for what happens are impingement (caught on the screens) and entrainment (taken in and cooked).  Amy Roe describes the situation this way:

“The Refinery is a Deadly Fish Trap:  The design of the cooling water intake structure makes the Refinery is particularly deadly to fish.  47 different species have been identified as being caught by the cooling water intake structure. These include striped bass, white perch, bay anchovy and weakfish.  While there are strict limits on the quantity and size of fish that can be harvested by recreational & commercial fishermen, the refinery is allowed to kill fish indiscriminately.”

“The intake structure is located at the end of a channel that is 4,673 feet from the Delaware River.  Fish that are filtered out of the water before entering the Refinery cooling system are placed back in the water in the same channel.  These fish have to swim out of the channel and back to the River to make it to safety.”

“To accomplish this feat, the already screen-impacted fish, or those trying bravely to avoid getting caught on the screen, have to swim against the velocity of water rushing towards the facility. For many, this is not a swim to safety, but a futile effort which results in their being repeatedly impinged upon the intake screen until they die.”

Consider, though, that the refinery is only one high-volume user of cooling water.  The largest is the Salem/Hope Creek nuclear reactor trio on the Jersey side of the river, using up to about 3 billion gallons per day.  Green Delaware has been arguing for years that the “cumulative impacts” of all these facilities needs to be considered in issuing permits for any one, but this has not happened.

This marine holocaust is avoidable.  Cooling towers or dry cooling systems (like the radiator of a car) can greatly reduce, or eliminate entirely, intake of cooling water.  This has been required by the plain language of the federal Clean Water Act since at least 1977 (the official term is Best Technology Available, BTA) but the law has never been enforced, apparently due to the political clout of big polluters.

So what can you do to influence the situation?

One thing is to attend the hearing (but be prepared to be treated disrespectfully) and express your concerns.

Another (please do this!) is to ask that the record (public comment period” be kept open until two weeks after a transcript of the hearing is made available so meaningful public comment can occur.

Another is to express in writing your objections to the present proposed draft permit and call for a permit similar to the draft described in the BTA determination described above.  Simply, demand cooling towers or equivalent be up and running within two years.

Contact your state Senator and Representative, and Governor Markell.  Ask that they reject DNREC’s dirty deal with the Delaware City Refinery and call for cooling towers within two years.

Comments to: and to the Hearing Officer:

Elected official contact information here.

Alan Muller

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