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Bear in the Woods: Environmental Law Blog

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

VICTORY: Bringing a water supply to a polluted town

This post is one in a month-long series speaking to 15 of PennFuture's significant victories. It was 15 years ago this September that we began our work to protect the environment and champion a clean energy economy.

For decades, citizens in one of the poorest areas of Butler County had lived with the remains of its industrial past. A chemical plant had dumped hazardous substances into ravines throughout the community, contaminating the public drinking water supply and many private water wells in and around the town of Petrolia.
Despite requests from local residents, both the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) failed to take action against the company responsible for the contamination, or even investigate the full extent of groundwater contamination in the community.
Frustrated by 20 years of official inaction, local citizens formed a group to look for legal assistance. Their search led them to the California law firm that employed Erin Brockovich as an investigator, and though that firm would not take the case, it suggested that the group contact a local nonprofit known as PennFuture. The group reached out, and PennFuture staff immediately responded by traveling to the rural valley to meet with concerned residents. We soon developed a plan of attack.

Representing nearly 100 families, PennFuture went public with its demand that DEP immediately provide safe drinking water to the community, and initiated a suit against the company responsible for the past waste disposal.

DEP responded by providing temporary drinking water to area residents, eventually earmarking $18 million to clean up the dump sites and build a new public water system that would supply residents with a permanent, safe source of drinking water. The company contributed to the cleanup through a settlement with DEP, and established a separate fund to reimburse our clients for the increased costs associated with their use of the public water supply.

The new water supply for the Petrolia Valley was completed in 2006. As of this month, the DEP continues to make slow progress on cleaning up the waste piles that originally contaminated area drinking water supplies in the town of Petrolia.