Merck, the maker of the very controversial Gardasil vaccine, has a pharmaceutical plant located in West Point, Pennsylvania, that discards pollutants from this facility into the Upper Gwynedd Township Publicly Owned Treatment Works (UGT POTW), according to a press release by the U.S. Department of Justice. The treated wastewater is released into the Wissahickon Creek, a tributary of the Schuylkill River. A federal court complaint was filed alleging that Merck violated the Clean Water Act with various discharges that caused numerous pass through and interference violations at the UGT POTW.
On June 13, 2006, Merck released potassium thiocyanate (KSCN) into the water that reacted with the chlorination at UGT POTW which resulted in extensive fish kills in the Wissahickon Creek on June 14th and 15th. The Philadelphia Water Department had to shut down its Schuylkill River drinking water intake for several days, and a health advisory was issued stating that all recreational uses on the Wissahickon Creek were prohibited from June 14th – July 10th. Then, on August 8th and 9th, Merck released a batch of spend substrate used in vaccine production which caused large-scale foam discharge into the creek. Later, on the 16th, Merck released a massive amount of cleaning agents that when treated at UGT POTW caused another major foam discharge.
Merck has agreed to settle the violations of federal and state water pollution regulations. Merck will pay $10 million to institute a system that will prevent future hazardous discharges from their plant. They will also spend approximately $9 million for environmental projects and will pay $1,575,000 in penalties and civil damages for past violations. “Merck’s actions led to an extensive fish-kill and caused the Philadelphia Water Department to temporarily shut down its drinking water operations,” stated Acting Assistant Attorney General Tenpas. “This settlement ensures that Merck will take steps to prevent future illegal discharges including installing an early warning system to protect drinking water.”
There have been many stories in the news lately concerning the problems with municipal water systems. “Perhaps more than anything else, this settlement says to every company that discharges dangerous chemicals as part of its operations that it is accountable to the environment and the community,” said U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, Pat Meehan. “Because when you get right down to it, no one should have to wonder, when they walk into the kitchen for a glass of water, if what they are about to drink is going to make them or their children sick.”