When the fish kill occurred, officials were baffled and alarmed. A multi-agency investigation ensued into what substance had been spilled and where it had come from.
It was not until June 20 that Merck told the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that the firm had spilled 25 gallons of potassium thiocyanate into the sewer system.
DEP's formal "notice of violation" to Merck - not a final conclusion - said that when DEP officials tried to conduct an investigation and interview on June 21, representatives of the West Point plant "delayed providing information and access to areas of the facility" and "delayed . . . interviews with staff members involved in this incident."
Merck spokeswoman Connie Wickersham said yesterday that "we don't agree with that characterization." She said the company had been "cooperating," but acknowledged that there had been some "delays."
"In fact, it was very difficult to balance simultaneous multiple requests from several government investigators on June 21," she said.
She had said previously that company officials alerted the EPA on the same day they discovered the chemical had come from their facility.
Maya van Rossum of the watchdog group Delaware Riverkeeper Network praised the DEP for "acting strongly and quickly."
"They are clearly following through very firmly," she said.
Of Merck, she added, "the fact that they chose not to step forward to protect the environment, to protect the community, but instead chose to protect themselves first and foremost, speaks volumes about Merck and the role that they play in our community."
The DEP has asked for a "detailed, written description" of the circumstances leading up to the discharge; a rundown of the steps Merck took to determine whether it had discharged a cyanide compound; the names and quantities of all materials discharged from "building 17" on the site from June 10 to 25, and "a facility-wide accounting of all substances" that contain cyanide or cyanate or could be converted into a cyanide compound after contact with other substances.
Merck's Wickersham said the company would respond to the request "in a timely manner" - the DEP asked for the information within 30 days - and said of the incident that "we do believe it was human error. It was an accident. . . . The disposal was not according to Merck-approved procedure."
Joseph A. Feola, director of the DEP's southeastern regional office, said the company "violated numerous state environmental regulations" in the release of the chemical. He said Merck's delays could result in additional sanctions or fines.
A potential amount for fines was not specified. DEP spokesman Dennis Harney said that "the information we have available to us now is sufficient for us to make a determination that civil violations occurred." He said that as the agency gets more information, "we can make further conclusions."
Yesterday, EPA spokesman Roy Seneca said the federal investigation was continuing and that EPA officials would continue to coordinate with the DEP.
Contact staff writer Sandy Bauers at 215-854-5147 or email@example.com.