A Case Study of Greene County, Pennsylvania
Greene County, a predominantly low-income Appalachian community in the southwestern corner of Pennsylvania, suffers from serious air and water pollution. A variety of sources, including abandoned mining sites and two major Allegheny Energy power plants, release large quantities of pollutants into the environment. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has already designated Greene County as an unhealthy air area (non-attainment area) due to ozone pollution and has also proposed designating Greene County as a non-attainment area for particulate matter pollution. Cancer rates in Greene County are substantially higher than state and national averages. Despite the obvious health risks county residents face, state and federal officials have repeatedly allowed inadequate monitoring of air and water pollution and have made no significant effort to collect data on possible health effects linked to pollution in Greene County. The problems NRDC uncovered in Greene County, while perhaps extreme, are not unique; residents in other parts of Pennsylvania and the Appalachian region face similar issues. The county's problems illustrate substantial shortcomings in state and federal regulatory programs and enforcement, some of which may plague many other communities in the nation.
Working in cooperation with, and at the request of, the Pennsylvania Environmental Council (PEC) and local citizens, NRDC launched an investigation to determine the extent of pollution problems in Greene County. This report details the results of NRDC's extensive examination of government documents and computer databases.
Health Effects of Pollution
Many of the air and water contaminants to which Greene County residents are exposed pose known health threats. For example:
- Arsenic, found in much county tap water, causes bladder, lung, and other cancers.1
- Ozone in the county's air makes it hard for some people to breathe. Children, the
elderly, people with asthma or other lung ailments, and those who work or exercise
regularly outdoors are most susceptible to ozone. It can permanently harm the
lungs,2 and recently has been linked to certain birth defects.3
- Particulate matter (PM) in polluted county air can aggravate asthma, increase
respiratory symptoms like coughing and painful breathing, cause chronic bronchitis
and decreased lung function, and can trigger premature death.4
- Sulfur dioxide (SO2), one of the principal pollutants released by power plants, is
associated with low birth weight and the onset of asthma attacks.5
- Bacteria and parasites in drinking water or recreational water can cause gastrointestinal
disease, vomiting, diarrhea, and in vulnerable people, serious infections
and even death.6
- Manganese, found in much county tap water, has been linked with neurological
and cognitive impairments.7
- Beryllium, pumped into the county air in large quantities by local power plants, can
cause lung damage and is a "probable human carcinogen," according to the EPA.
Based upon the limited available data, it has been projected that nearly all 40,000 county residents face a pollution-related cancer risk greater than 100 times the goal set by federal policy (one in 1 million lifetime cancer risk).8 In fact, Greene County was ranked as one of the "dirtiest/worst counties in the United States" (worst 10 percent) based on total environmental releases, cancer risk, and non-cancer risk.9 The extent of the pollution also raises concerns about children's health and development in the county and surrounding areas. As noted above, prenatal exposures to pollutants such as ozone are suspected of causing birth defects, while others, such as manganese, are associated with delayed psychomotor development in children.10
Hatfield's Ferry and Fort Martin power plants are the most significant local sources of air pollution in Greene County -- Hatfield's Ferry is the second largest air polluter in Pennsylvania.11 Both plants have a history of regulatory compliance problems stretching back over 30 years.
Annually, the two plants release approximately 99 million pounds of nitrogen oxides and 511 million pounds of sulfur oxides into the air. In 2001, Hatfield's Ferry was the largest source of SO2 in the United States.12
In addition, both plants emit millions of pounds of heavy metals and other toxins into the air. In 2002, Hatfield's Ferry was responsible for more than half of the entire state's air emissions of the dangerous metal beryllium. The plant pumped more than 3,900 pounds of arsenic into the air in 2002 -- 21 percent of the state's air emissions of arsenic. The Fort Martin plant self-reported 210 pounds of arsenic emissions to the air in 2002.13
Other significant toxic releases included barium, chromium, cobalt, copper, dioxin, hydrochloric acid, hydrogen fluoride, lead, manganese, mercury, nickel, selenium, sulfuric acid, vanadium, and zinc. However, the county's only ambient air quality monitoring station does not test for any of these hazardous air pollutants, so actual exposure data for residents are nonexistent. NRDC discovered that both power plants also have violated opacity standards on numerous occasions -- an indication of PM pollution.
Drinking Water Risks and Water Pollution
Spotty compliance records and detections of contaminants in public drinking water supplies also pose health concerns.14 Two local water supplies have been found to contain arsenic, a potent cancer-causing agent, at levels up to three times higher than the EPA's new 10 parts per billion (ppb) standard (which becomes enforceable in 2006).15 The risk of dying from cancer from drinking water containing this level of arsenic for a lifetime, according to National Academy of Sciences estimates, is about 1 in 100.16 Some local water systems also have failed bacteria, filtration, or other drinking water requirements. In one instance, water authority employees found rat remains clogging a customer's water meter and tap.
It is not possible to pinpoint with certainty the source of the arsenic in local water supplies, but it is a concern that in 2002 the Hatfield's Ferry power plant released or transferred 15,000 pounds of arsenic to land.17 It also is a concern that high levels of arsenic and certain other heavy metals and other inorganic constituents that are fingerprints for coal waste or coal ash have been found in groundwater and surface water at or near the two big power plants, and that discharges from the two plants sometimes contain metals at elevated levels. Furthermore, certain abandoned mine discharges in Greene and neighboring Fayette counties have been found to contain elevated arsenic concentrations. Again, there are major gaps in the discharge monitoring, groundwater monitoring, and monitoring of the Monongahela and its tributaries in the Greene County area. Even so, NRDC has uncovered numerous violations of water permits from power plants and other pollution sources.
Other environmental pollution sources in Greene County include:
- contamination from abandoned and active coal mines;
- "wildcat sewers" that discharge untreated sewage into the Monongahela and its
tributaries immediately upstream of Greene County water supply intakes;
- hazardous waste disposal areas;
- other upstream or upwind pollution sources.
Inadequate Monitoring and Enforcement
Our detailed review has shown that despite the potential health risks due to pollution, state and federal officials have repeatedly allowed monitoring waivers or insufficient testing for air and water pollution in Greene County. County air pollution is monitored at only one site and only for three pollutants, and monitoring for many air and water pollutants at the big power plants is infrequent or nonexistent. Moreover, water quality testing of the Monongahela River, its tributaries, and recharging groundwater is rare and generally ignores key contaminants. In addition, Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (PA DEP) officials have waived many drinking water safety monitoring requirements for Greene County water utilities, such as tests for arsenic, pesticides, and many industrial chemicals, in a manner that NRDC believes is unlawful -- using a statewide blanket waiver that allows most utilities to test for many contaminants only once every nine years. This virtually guarantees that the extent of local tap water contamination is poorly understood, and that local citizens are not informed of potentially risky contaminants in their water. And despite the numerous violations NRDC uncovered in state records, enforcement has been weak to nonexistent.
In addition, NRDC found no substantial effort by government officials to collect direct data on possible health effects linked to pollution in the county. The overall cancer rate, and the rate of certain cancers such as lung cancer, are higher in Greene County than statewide or nationally, though making any link to environmental causes would require further study. Better data will be crucial in order to identify possible disease clusters and to track the progress of environmental and health protection efforts.
1. National Academy of Sciences, Arsenic in Drinking Water: 2001 Update (Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press, 2001), http:// books.nap.edu/catalog/10194.html.
3. B. Ritz, F. Yu, S. Fruin, G. Chapa, G.M. Shaw, and J.A. Harris, "Ambient air pollution and risk of birth defects in Southern California," American Journal of Epidemiology, vol. 155(1) (2002): pp. 17-25.
5. M. Maisonet, T.J. Bush, A. Correa, and J.J. Jaakkola, "Relation between ambient air pollution and low birth weight in the Northeastern United States," Environmental Health Perspectives, vol. 109(Suppl 3) (2001): pp. 351-6.
8. Pennsylvania Environmental Council, Greene County: Preliminary Assessment (August 2002); Scorecard, "2000 Rankings: Major Chemical Releases in Greene County," www.scorecard.org/ env-releases/county.tcl?fips _county_code=42059#major _chemical_releases.
10. B. Ritz, F. Yu, S. Fruin, G. Chapa, G.M. Shaw, and J.A. Harris, "Ambient air pollution and risk of birth defects in Southern California," American Journal of Epidemiology, vol. 155(1) (2002): pp. 17-25; and L. Takser, D. Mergler, G. Hellier, J. Sahuquillo, and G. Huel, "Manganese, monoamine metabolite levels at birth, and child psychomotor development," Neurotoxicology vol. 24(4-5) (2003): pp. 667-74.
14. Scorecard, "2000 Rankings: Major Chemical Releases in Greene County," www.scorecard.org/ envreleases/county.tcl?fips_county _code=42059#major_chemical _releases; EPA, Safe Drinking Water Information System, www.epa.gov/ safewater/dwinfo/pa.htm.
16. National Academy of Sciences, Arsenic in Drinking Water: 2001 Update (Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press, 2001), http:// books.nap.edu/catalog/10194 .html; National Academy of Sciences, "New Evidence Confirms Cancer Risk in Drinking Water," September 11, 2001, www4 .nationalacademies.org/news.nsf/ isbn/0309076293?OpenDocument.
Sign up for NRDC's online newsletter
Water on Switchboard
NRDC experts write about water efficiency, green infrastructure and climate on the NRDC blog.
Recent Water Posts
- New Public Polling Research Shows Americans Want Clean Water Safeguards
- posted by Jon Devine, 1/22/15
- NY State of State 2015: Time to Go All-In on Clean Energy, Safe Water & Local Food
- posted by Richard Schrader, 1/13/15
- Latin America Green News: record deforestation in Paraguay, renewables in Nicaragua, World Bank suggests carbon tax for Peru
- posted by Maria Martinez, 1/12/15
NRDC Gets Top Ratings from the Charity Watchdogs
- Charity Navigator awards NRDC its 4-star top rating.
- Worth magazine named NRDC one of America's 100 best charities.
- NRDC meets the highest standards of the Wise Giving Alliance of the Better Business Bureau.