Proposed waste facility draws concern

20160229-Elk-River
In 2014, 10,000 gallons of hazardous chemicals spilled into the Elk River in Charleston, West Virginia, contaminating the public water system for potentially 300,000 residents.

Two years ago, about 10,000 gallons of chemicals spilled into the Elk River just upstream from Charleston, W.Va., where Lisa Tordo's relatives live.

For a month, Tordo said, the family couldn't drink water from its faucets.

That's one reason she worries about Elcon.

The Israel-based company wants to build a hazardous-waste treatment facility - and eventually its U.S. headquarters - not far from Tordo's home in Lower Bucks County.

The proposed plant in Falls Township would treat about 150,000 tons of hazardous wastewater a year. It would be only the second such facility in the region, and Elcon's first in the United States.

Critics such as Tordo are most concerned about its location - a stone's throw from the Delaware River, a water source for millions.

"This isn't just residents complaining," said Tordo, a Lower Makefield resident and one of nearly 300 people who packed a raucous meeting Tuesday in Langhorne. "This is a very serious issue, and it doesn't just affect Bucks County."

Not all who attended were environmentalists, or even opponents of the plan. Nearly a third came to support it because the facility is expected to create 55 permanent jobs and up to 200 construction jobs on the site, once part of U.S. Steel's Fairless Works plant.

Looking at the split crowd, one frustrated attendee declared the proposal was pitting "the middle class against the middle class."

For some, the plan hit another raw nerve. Their county, they say, already hosts too much contamination and landfill.

"I don't want Bucks County to be a dumping grounds," said Lynda Mintz, a longtime Bensalem resident.

First proposed in 2014, Elcon's plan is still in the early stages. The company passed its initial hurdle with the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection last fall.

The second-phase application process could last up to a year and a half. Tuesday's informational meeting was part of that process.

Elcon says the facility will serve manufacturers and companies from Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Delaware that typically ship their waste to out-of-state treatment sites. Between 20 and 30 percent of their future clients might be industrial companies in Lower Bucks, Elcon estimates.

The firm operates one facility in Israel and is looking to expand its operations in the United States and Europe.

It uses a process called thermal oxidation to remove chemicals from water, which company officials say is more cost-effective and eco-friendly than incineration or deep well injection, two common methods for dealing with hazardous wastewater.

The oxidation process creates "distilled" water that the company says it plans to reuse on site, gases that will be released via stack, and salts and solids that will go to a landfill.

Those salts and solids currently are classified as hazardous waste by state environmental regulators, according to Elcon. But the company says they are not hazardous "according to U.S. standards," and says it will seek to have them removed from the state list.

In its latest proposals for the Falls site, Elcon has pledged not to discharge into the Delaware River; not to use Pennsylvania Avenue, a major Lower Bucks thoroughfare, for trucking; and not to accept fracking waste.

Skeptics say the risk still is too big: Five drinking-water withdrawal sites on the river provide drinking water for about six million people in the region.

In pitches, Elcon says the Falls Township site is one mile from the Delaware River. It is, but is also a half-mile from a creek that flows into the river.

"We're not against Elcon. What we're against is the siting of this facility in this location," said Fred Stine, citizen action coordinator at the Delaware Riverkeeper Network.

In October, officials from the Philadelphia Water Department urged state regulators to deny Elcon's application, contending that a chemical spill at the proposed site could reach a downstream water intake that provides 60 percent of the city's drinking water.

In a letter to the DEP, Deputy Water Commissioner Christopher S. Crockett said the prospect of having to close that intake because of a spill upstream would be "catastrophic."

An Elcon representative told the crowd Tuesday that Philadelphia Water had been relying on "misinformation," and had since recanted that statement. But a Philadelphia Water spokeswoman said Friday the utility stands by its position that any event that would force the closure of a drinking-water intake would be catastrophic.

Elcon representatives argue that they are cleaning water, not creating waste, and helping companies comply with environmental regulations. They say the chances of an accident are slim.

When asked how the company would respond to spills, spokeswoman Marjorie Fitzpatrick said the plan was for that "not to happen."

Later, when pressed about why residents should believe promises of safety, she said: "We didn't say there won't be spills. We said we have contingencies in place."

Those include employees and truck drivers trained to deal with a spill, concrete containers around hazardous-waste holders, and frequent inspections.

"There are certain things, an accident is something - genuine, legitimate concern. I don't deny that at all," said Rengarajan Ramesh, a technical consultant for Elcon. "What is within our control, we're going to do everything possible to do."

Falls Township officials have not yet taken a stance on the matter, despite opponents' request that they do so. In a Feb. 17 statement, the township board of supervisors said it could not pass a resolution regarding the project until Elcon formally presents its plans to the township, which it has not.

The project could bring to life an abandoned steel facility and generate tax revenue for the densely populated, middle-class township.

Hatfield Township, Montgomery County, is host to the only other hazardous-waste treatment facility in the Philadelphia region, according to DEP records.

Sean Gleave, a Bucks resident and a member of Local 98 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, said he thought the plant would improve the area.

"The flow of industry," he said at Tuesday's meeting. "That's what it's all about."

Elcon's next step is to submit more application materials in about a month. It could be more than a year before the state regulators rule.

Meanwhile, detractors are sending comments to the DEP and attempting to recruit opposition.

Some question why the company, out of all the places on the map, chose Falls Township.

Ramesh said the Lower Bucks area already is home to industry, and the site already is zoned for heavy industry.

"This is a heritage," he said at the meeting.

Some people who live there wish it weren't.

When the Elcon spokeswoman said there was "a local need for this service," several people in the room piped up:

"No, there's not."

jmcdaniel@philly.com

610-313-8205@McDanielJustine