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Commissioners Defer Contamination Issues to DEP

 

By Rick Hiduk

Beyond the routine business of county government, public participants in the July 21 Bradford County Commissioners’ meeting were preoccupied with water issues. And, while Commissioner Mark Smith agreed to look into a Towanda resident’s concerns about the safety of eating fish caught at Mt. Pisgah State Park after a significant die-off of fish was reported there earlier in the year, the board as a whole backed off from addressing concerns he and another resident had about water well contamination attributed to gas drilling.

Daniel Natt of Macedonia addressed the commissioners about a published article that he had read in early June about upwards of 250 dead fish found at Stephen Foster Lake in Mt. Pisgah Park. The story indicated that there would be a follow-up when park manager Ken Gwin and Bradford County Conservation District manager Mike Lovegreen received results from water testing.

Natt noted that there had been no follow-up report and that he was getting a runaround with his personal inquiries into the topic. “I was wondering why, after all of this time, nobody had done anything about it,” Natt said after the meeting. “Why wasn’t anyone concerned when there was so much gas activity in the area?”

He also expressed concerns to the commissioners about the safety of fish being caught at the park. “If you are letting people eat fish that shouldn’t be eaten, something is wrong,” Natt told the board.

Natt related that he had phoned the state fish commission, a representative of which directed him to the state’s Department of Environmental Protection (DEP). “I talked to DEP, and they passed it back to the fish commission and the park’s department,” said Natt, who added that a representative from the parks department attributed the problem to storm runoff.

“I never knew that fish and water didn’t get along,” Natt said to the commissioners. He later related that he had seen photos taken by friends of muddy water in the lake and conceded that, if there were enough dirt particles in the water, the fish might be adversely affected. Natt dismissed commissioner Doug McLinko’s suggestion, however, that there was an ongoing pH problem at the lake based on a discussion in which Natt had engaged in just prior to the meeting with Bradford County Conservation District coordinator Mike Lovegreen. 

“Our monitoring data didn’t indicate that,” Lovegreen said of the pH levels in an interview conducted almost a week after the meeting. He related that there have been fish kills reported in various ponds and lakes in the area in recent weeks, including a stretch of the Susquehanna River near the boat club in Asylum Township. 

“Nobody has really pinpointed what has caused it,” Lovegreen noted. “We do have years like this where we suddenly see die-offs.” The source may be the unusual combination of an excessively wet spring giving way to a hot dry summer, or there may be a more insidious natural element at work.

“There is a new algae that has turned up in (Stephen Foster) Lake that we have never seen before, and some of these blue-green algae can cause toxicity.” Gwin has recently assured Lovegreen that the fish at Mt. Pisgah Park seem to have returned to normal, but both are still searching for a precise cause of the die-offs.

When Natt again pressed the board at the July 21 meeting for action on the issue, Smith suggested that he would look into the issue on Natt’s behalf.

Diane Siegmund of Towanda chastised the commissioners for not following through with what she feels were promises made by the commissioners prior to the primary election—McLinko in particular—to help establish a phone line through which Bradford County residents could comfortably and discreetly report water and other contamination issues so that such information could be compiled and presented to DEP and elected officials in Harrisburg in an organized manner that might bring about a more effective response to methane gas migration and an uptick in heavy metals in the drinking water supply.

Without such a system in place at the county level, Siegmund asked, “How do we collect verifiable information for our county?” She volunteered once again to spearhead such a project with the commissioners’ blessings. Not only did she not win their support, Siegmund was rebuffed.

“That’s not our job as a county,” McLinko insisted, noting that he and the other commissioners were looking forward to reviewing a DEP report on water quality and contamination issues that they were due to receive this week. McLinko has stated on previous occasions that he strongly believes that DEP should be solely responsible for investigating and responding to water contamination issues and that residents should be dealing with the agency on a case-by-case basis without interference from outside groups. “The people who are crying ‘wolf’ are not helping the people who are having the problems,” he stated at the meeting.

“I think that DEP is understaffed and overwhelmed,” Siegmund responded.

“So are we, Diane,” McLinko retorted. He suggested that Siegmund and other residents also direct their concerns to their state representatives, who, Siegmund asserted, have been no help on the water quality issue either.

“I couldn’t believe that he said that,” Natt related afterward in reference to McLinko’s remarks. “We obviously have a problem, and we need help.” In a breach of meeting protocol, Natt spoke up in Siegmund’s defense. “If DEP is overwhelmed, then why doesn’t the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) step in and take the job back? It’s time for somebody with more experience to address these issues,” he stated, adding later that he felt the conduct afforded Siegmund by the board was disrespectful. “They kind of swished her under the rug. They just weren’t going to go there,” Natt remarked.

“I invest so much time in hearing peoples stories and knowing what’s going on,” Siegmund said after the meeting. “If the news is that there is no problem, that’s dangerous.”

“(Siegmund) is trying to set up something where people can go without fear to report water problems,” he continued, noting that Siegmund’s reference to more than 80tainted water wells in the county alarmed him. Like many of his neighbors, Natt has had his water well tested and feels fortunate to have received a good report. He remains concerned, however, because a neighbor less than a quarter mile from his house was informed by Chesapeake Energy that her water has methane gas at potentially explosive levels, and she needs to have her well vented. “A year before, she had it checked by herself, and it was perfect,” Natt said of the neighbor’s water quality. “I think that we should stop everything right now and have everybody’s water tested.”

Natt also supports Siegmund’s proposal for an anonymous help/tip line. “I would support that in a minute. I think that anybody would,” he stated. “You can’t let people be afraid of the gas companies or be controlled by them.”

“It never dawned on Mr. McLinko that we could do some of the work for DEP and take it to Harrisburg,” said Siegmund, who admitted to feeling “deflated” by the response she received from the commissioners to the phone line idea and to her report that a gas company was operating an unpermitted frack waste treatment facility at a former pig farm on the Asylum and Terry Townships line.

Additional business conducted by the commissioners included the opening of bids for a photocopier, supplies, and service, which varied from $3,313 to $4,365 per month. The board voted to accept a 2011 Emergency Management Performance Grant Award of $59,394 that will be used for personnel salaries and benefits, which Smith described as an annual allocation from the agency that was a bit lower than last year’s grant.

There will be no county commissioners’ meetings on Aug. 4 or Aug. 18. The commissioners will be attending a conference together on one of those dates, and Smith and Commissioner John Sullivan will be unavailable on the other date. McLinko reminded those in attendance that commissioners’ meetings were held every other week in the past and that county government will continue despite the change in the schedule. 

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