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Federal Court Delivers Important Decision on PPG Allegheny River Waste Site

PennEnvironment, Sierra Club applaud decision finding violations at PPG’s Ford City site
For Immediate Release

[Pittsburgh, PA] – Six years after non-profit environmental groups PennEnvironment and Sierra Club filed a federal lawsuit against PPG Industries, Inc. (PPG) alleging ongoing violations at the company’s Ford City site along the Allegheny River, a federal judge handed down a decision finding PPG liable with respect to many of the organizations’ claims against the company.

Magistrate Judge Robert C. Mitchell of the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania issued a decision stating that ongoing pollution at PPG’s Ford City site may present an imminent and unacceptable risk to human health or the environment.  In the same decision, Judge Mitchell dismissed PPG’s claim that Eljer Inc., a separate company, was partially liable for the pollution at the Ford City site.

“Judge Mitchell’s decision is quite clear: PPG has violated our cornerstone environmental laws when it comes to putting our environment and health at risk,” stated PennEnvironment Executive Director David Masur. “After 50 years of PPG dragging its feet, we are hopefully at a juncture to get this illegal pollution cleaned up to protect our health, environment, and the Allegheny River.”

For decades, PPG disposed of waste from its glass-making plant in Armstrong County’s Ford City to the company’s waste site on the other side of the Allegheny River.  That waste has contaminated the surrounding soil with heavy metals, including lead and arsenic, and causes the groundwater that seeps from the site to have high alkalinity, an ammonia-like pH.  

The court handed down a crucial decision last week, finding that PPG’s waste must be addressed under RCRA because its contamination of the soil at the waste site, and the high-pH seeps, may present an imminent and substantial risk to human health or the environment.

The standard for violation of the federal Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) is based on the potential threat contamination poses to the environment. Given this, the court found the conditions created by PPG’s waste violate this threshold, and therefore this cornerstone federal environmental law.

Sierra Club Pennsylvania Chapter Director Joanne Kilgour noted, "PPG's continuing contamination hinders ongoing efforts to clean up the Allegheny River. While many industries along the river have made great strides to limit pollution to the Allegheny, we must hold companies like PPG accountable in order to protect the drinking water of the communities downstream."

In August 2015, the court found that PPG has been unlawfully discharging water contaminated with heavy metals and high-pH into the Allegheny River for decades, violating the federal Clean Water Act and Pennsylvania’s Clean Streams Law.  The court had previously granted plaintiffs’ request that it order PPG to apply for the required pollutant discharge permit (the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination, or “NPDES”) that it should have obtained in the 1970s. PPG applied for the permit in 2015 and amended its application in 2017 to include additional contaminated seep discharges.  The environmental groups and PPG are currently waiting for the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection to issue the permit.

“After six years of litigation, the court has found PPG liable on this and earlier claims asserted by the plaintiffs.  The court has correctly decided each of the claims it has had to analyze under the complicated environmental statutes at issue in the case,” stated Carolyn Smith Pravlik, one of the attorneys for the plaintiff environmental organizations.   “Interestingly, the court’s decision was based in large part on reports prepared by PPG’s expert.” PennEnvironment and Sierra Club are represented by Thomas J. Farrell of Farrell & Reisinger PC of Pittsburgh, PA, and Carolyn Smith Pravlik, Patrick A. Sheldon and Nicholas F. Soares of Terris, Pravlik & Millian, LLP of Washington, D.C.

As the next step in the litigation, plaintiffs PennEnvironment and Sierra Club will ask the court to order PPG to remedy the contamination and assess civil penalties against PPG for decades of ongoing violation of the Clean Water Act.

“We’re fortunate that the authors of our cornerstone environmental laws had the foresight to create the citizen-suit provisions that allow concerned and affected citizens to use the courts to rein in illegal polluters,” noted Masur. “This is a crucial backstop to protecting our health and environment from polluters who break the law.”