Drugmaker Merck & Co.'s research facility in West Point dumped a chemical compound that included cyanide into the sewer system, killing more than 1,000 fish in Wissahickon Creek, federal authorities said Thursday.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said during a federal and state investigation, Merck came forward to disclose that a vaccine research facility released about 25 gallons of potassium thiocyanate into the sewer on the morning of June 13.
"This appears to be the main cause of the fish kill," said Jon Capacasa, director of the water protection division for the EPA's mid-Atlantic region. The compound "reacted in a bad way with the chlorination system and created a chemical that was very toxic to the fish."
Potassium thiocyanate is used for making industrial chemicals, pharmaceuticals and pesticides.
Merck spokeswoman Connie Wickersham said the drugmaker believes proper procedures for waste disposal of the chemicals were not followed. She said chemicals should have been treated and rendered "neutral" at Merck's own waste treatment facility before being released into the sewer.
"We haven't determined whether it was an employee or a mechanical failure," she said.
Capacasa said penalties could go as high as $32,500 for each violation, per day, under the Clean Water Act. The agency is trying to determine whether violations have occurred.
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