The Invisible Threats to the Delaware River

WHYY News | January 24, 2019 | Energy & Environment
The Clean Water Act helped to transform the river, but it’s still vulnerable to a range of pollutants

Credit: Kimberly Paynter/WHYY
Fishermen on the Delaware River near the Neshaminy State Marina in 2018
More than 45 years after the passage of the Clean Water Act, the Delaware River has gone from being an eyesore and a hazard to a recreational draw.

But former regional EPA director Richard Pepino warns that there are still serious challenges to water quality. We just don’t see them. Pepino worked at the EPA for some 25 years, most of them enforcing the Clean Water Act. Now he is concerned about threats to the river the law doesn’t address. “I worry about things that are hard to measure like pharmaceuticals, personal care products, things that run off with stormwater — pesticides or herbicides,” he said.

The Clean Water Act doesn’t address such “non-point source” pollutants. To do so, it would need amendments, and the last time the law was significantly amended was 1987. Lawmakers weren’t even thinking about pharmaceuticals in the water in 1987, mostly because we didn’t have the technology to detect them. But they were probably there then too because most of them come from us.

The traces of pharmaceuticals in the Delaware are very low — like a grain of sand in an Olympic-size swimming pool. And so far, those levels don’t put humans at risk. But the story is different when it comes to wildlife.

Read part three of “Reviving the River,” a series by WHYY, a content partner of NJ Spotlight.