DEP seeks public comment on plan to clean up decades-old contamination at Bishop Tube site

The contaminated Bishop Tube site in East Whiteland Township, Chester County. Environmentalists say DEP has neglected the cleanup over many years

The contaminated Bishop Tube site in East Whiteland Township, Chester County. Environmentalists say DEP has neglected the cleanup over many years. (Jon Hurdle / StateImpact Pennsylvania)

The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection is seeking public comment on a proposal to clean up decades-old contamination at the site of the former Bishop Tube facility in East Whiteland Township, Chester County.

Under the Hazardous Sites Cleanup Act, DEP is proposing remedial action to address soil, groundwater, and surface water contamination, and an affected residential drinking water supply. The goal is to ensure that the site meets state environmental standards and prepare it for reuse.

“It’s to have a site that is protective of human health and the environment, so cleaning up the contamination at the site will have benefits to whatever the future use might be at the site, as well as to help clean up the environment,” said DEP regional director Pat Patterson.

Several businesses manufactured stainless steel tubes at the 13.7-acre Bishop Tube site from the 1950s until 1999, contributing to various kinds of contamination. Officials are most concerned about trichloroethylene (TCE), a commercial-grade solvent that was commonly used as a degreasing agent for manufactured metal parts. Prolonged exposure to TCE can cause neurological, cardiac, reproductive, and developmental health problems.

Part of the proposed $8.1 million effort includes injecting chemical oxidants, which then creates a chemical reaction that destroys harmful contaminants and produces harmless byproducts. The process is conducted in place, without having to excavate soil or pump out groundwater for aboveground cleanup.

Residences with contaminated wells would be connected to an existing public water line.

The effort would entail continuous monitoring for several years to make sure that the remedial actions were working and reducing the contamination on a regular basis.

Public comment on the DEP’s proposal is open until Jan. 3.

“We have notified several residents that have been interested in this for a number of years. It’s been a long process. And we hope we are coming to a solution that has been a long time coming,” Patterson said, adding that he also hopes people new to the issue will become engaged in the process.

“So, this is something we’re not doing unilaterally. We have a proposed remedial action that is required under the statute, but based on the comments that we get, we are going to take them all under very serious consideration and move forward with a plan that satisfies our standards of of having a clean site, but also something that the community and the municipality and the neighbors are hopefully happy with and will support us going through the rest of this project,” he said.

DEP wants the parties responsible for the contamination — the businesses previously located at the site — to undertake the cleanup themselves. If that doesn’t occur, DEP would take on the project itself and work to recover the costs from those responsible parties.

Future reuse of the site, on Malin Road south of U.S. Route 30, is still up in the air. But community members and environmentalists have been fighting against a proposal to build townhouses there. The plan has been fraught with legal battles between environmental groups, DEP, East Whiteland Township, and the developer.

In 2016, the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry urged the developer, Constitution Drive Partners, to consider nonresidential uses for the site because of the contamination. Eight years prior, the agency called the site “heavily contaminated” with chlorinated solvents, acids, and heavy metals (including TCE) thousands of times above Pennsylvania’s health standard. The agency also identified an underground “plume” of chlorinated solvents in aquifers beneath the site and beyond.

Patterson said DEP’s goal is to get the site cleaned up to its standard regardless of the status of any current or future development plans.

The Delaware Riverkeeper Network, an environmental group that has led community opposition to the redevelopment plan, filed a lawsuit against DEP and the township over the development deal. The group wants the site to be preserved as natural open space and for cleanup efforts to meet the highest standard possible.

Maya van Rossum, head of the Delaware Riverkeeper Network, said DEP’s remediation proposal does not address the plan to build townhouses on the site because it would bring the site to background, statewide health, and site-specific standards, rather than residential standards.

“So, bringing new families to this still-contaminated condition … They’re not looking for cleanup in order to protect families living on the site, they are driving towards an entirely different standard, but that is not what’s on the table for the Bishop Tube site,” she said.

The Riverkeeper Network has argued that DEP has not been proactive in holding the parties responsible for the contamination to account, and instead has spent years “working out sweetheart deals with the developer” to repurpose the site for townhouses.

“And unfortunately, that means that the Delaware Riverkeeper Network has been forced to use our resources as a nonprofit to take these bad actors to court. And that is just fundamentally wrong. They should be on the side of people, not on anybody else’s,” van Rossum said.

The public comment period began Sept. 25 and lasts until Jan. 3. Written comments can be sent by mail to Dustin A. Armstrong, Department of Environmental Protection, 2 E. Main St., Norristown, Pa. 19401, or by email to RA-EP-SEROECB@pa.gov. Include “Bishop Tube Public Comment” in the subject of the email.

A virtual public hearing is scheduled for Nov. 9. Individuals who wish to present testimony must email RA-EP-SEROECB@pa.gov at least 24 hours in advance to register.

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