Officials from both the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) and Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission say "a 'slug' of some type of pollutant that quickly appeared and disappeared" caused the death of over 1,000 fish in the Little Schuylkill River in Tamaqua earlier this week.
The trail of dead fish followed the river downstream 3.1 miles south from the edge of the Tamaqua Borough, behind the old car dealership across from Hess's Gas Station, south to the silt basin in South Tamaqua. Officials spent the past few days investigating the possible cause of hundreds of the dead fish found floating on top of or laying beneath the water. Green dye was placed in the water to trace possible origins of the pollutant.
Last Monday, the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission received a call from a concerned citizen who reported hundreds of floating dead fish passing by his business located at the KNF Corporation located on West Penn Pike (SR-309) in South Tamaqua. Chad Woleslagle, Southwest Region Waterways Conservation Officer, Bureau of Law Enforcement of the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission, responded and walked over six miles that first day to investigate. DEP officials and biologists also responded, and spent the next few days inspecting the cause of the 3-mile stretch of water.
Officials from the Borough of Mining and Reclamation out of Pottsville inspected the water leading from the AMD Treatment Plant behind Hess Gas Station into the Little Schuylkill River. Their tests came back safe. Biologists from the DEP stated pH levels in the surrounding water ranged from 5 to 6. The higher the number, the more acidic it is. DEP states that 5 to 6 is normal for the area. Most tap water is normally rated at a neutral 7.
"The incident is not related to the Lehigh Coal and Navigation Company (AMD, Acid Mine Drainage Plant) in any way," DEP spokesman Mark Carmon said.
LC&N recently had its permit suspended by DEP for "persistent illegal mining practices, repeated water quality violations, and an ongoing failure to reclaim mined lands, which is required to protect the public from unsafe mining sites, have prompted the Department of Environmental Protection to suspend Lehigh Coal and Navigation's mining activities in Carbon and Schuylkill Counties."
Low water levels are not allowing the sunken dead fish to continue downstream. The trail of dead fish were still seen Friday floating in clusters or alone all throughout the Little Schuylkill River. Dead freshwater crustaceans could also be seen in the riverbanks and half-gutted fish can be seen in the river as well as throughout the river's banks as wild animals are eating the dead fish as they float closer to the river's banks. A dead bat was also seen at the river's bank, but it might not be related.
Chad Woleslagle of the Pennsylvania Fish and Game Commission, of Hometown, pointed out that Tamaqua has over 30 known unregulated sewage entry points, also known as "wild cats." He also pointed out that anyone could have placed a harsh or fish-sensitive chemical into any of these entry points or another access point that leads into the river.
"Many different species and sizes of fish were killed, such as rainbow trout, brown trout, brook trout, rainbow shiners, suckers, and creek chubs," he reported.
Officials point out that a "slug" or unknown substance somehow entered the Schuylkill River and quickly dissipated, appearing to leave nothing to follow.
The true origin of the dead fish is hard to pinpoint due to the river's current and various branches of smaller waterways. One official said the Wabash Creek's entry point into the Little Schuylkill was a possible origin of the pollutant.
One anonymous resident living adjacent to the Schuylkill River in South Tamaqua pointed out that in the past, hundreds of fish used to swim by his home every day. He also said a team from the Schuylkill Conservation District and the USGS set up permanent equipment on a nearby structure to routinely "shock" the water to test the water and amount of fish in it.
These tests showed hundreds of fish in the river. He is hoping the Schuylkill Conservation District will come back and perform more tests, since the dead fish appeared.
"If you look in the river now, you hardly see any fish, except for the dead ones," he reported.
Officials from both organizations point out that the water is safe and they will continue to spend more time over the next week working with the Tamaqua Borough and Water Department to determine what caused the death of so many fish in a short period of time.