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Conewago Creek disaster could serve as a lessson

Written by Flint McColgan, York Daily Record | Jun 15, 2015 11:45 AM

Video: National environmental lawyer reflects on chemical runoff passing his weekend retreat

(Wrightsville) -- The water was calm as Michael Nixon watched a snapping turtle sunning itself Saturday on the bank of the Susquehanna River near Wrightsville.

But all it would take, the environmental lawyer said the next day, would be a storm to loosen the "biological biomass debris" left in the wake of last week's Hanover-area fertilizer plant fire and subsequent spill.

The Oregon-based environmental lawyer, who also maintains a satellite office in Pittsburgh, has worked as an adviser on environmental and energy law and projects across America, including several projects in York County like the Susquehanna Riverlands Preservation in Lower Windsor Township. He also has a retreat on the river downstream from the spill.

The state Department of Environmental Protection said Saturday afternoon that it hadn't seen any significant impact to the Susquehanna River from the creek contamination, and there was no discoloration to the river water.

Employees with the state Fish and Boat Commission are still counting the number of fish killed in the creek -- it now stands at more than 10,000 -- and in the next two weeks, staff will be identifying areas of the creek to sample and estimate how much aquatic life has died, spokesman Eric Levis said.

"We won't know what will happen in this case for sure until it plays out," Scott Stranko, a biologist with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, said in an email. "But stream ecosystems can be amazingly resilient. As long as the water quality recovers, fish should recolonize from tributaries and downstream.

Whatever the extent of the damage, the contamination comes at just the right moment to test the waters for regulatory change, Nixon said. There is a new governor, and a fresh start could be made today to put a plan into action.

Nixon said he wants to see more resources go to the state environmental protection agency for it to better do its job and for operators to develop a "maintenance plan" that is forward-looking over the next several decades to make that plan economically feasible.

"There's a lot of work that needs to be done to be able to protect these sensitive waters and the living things that depend on them," he said. "There is plenty of existing technology -- it's not rocket science. There are facilities small and large that can improve their response."

Fining a company hardly makes any difference, either, he said, because the money from that fine doesn't necessarily go toward correcting the problem itself.

That fine would go into a state's general fund for general purpose use. If a fine should occur, he said, that money would be better spent by directly investing it into the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection and other regulatory agencies that are understaffed and without adequate resources to do its job.

Other money should also go to the volunteer fire departments Pennsylvania relies on to make up for the resources they raised money for that were used to combat and contain the fire.

But any action plan, he said, starts with knowledge.

"The very first and best tool is education," he said. "Everyone has that responsibility to protect and preserve for future generations, not just for our use. That's pretty much a worldwide principle."

Read more about the Miller Chemical fire and its effects here.

Correction: This article was updated from a previous version to correct one of the references to the state Department of Environmental Protection.

boater 600x340 YDR.jpg

Photo by Paul Kuehnel, York Daily Record/Sunday News

A boater in Hellam Township on Sunday. State officials said there was no sign of any contamination on the Susquehanna over the weekend after a Hanover area fire at Miller Chemical last week


This article comes to us through a partnership between York Daily Record and WITF. 

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Comments: 1

  • Flash img 2015-06-15 19:36

    Republicans have weakened President Obama's Clean Energy Plan that addresses clean air and water.

    Republicans have also weakened environmental and endangered species provisions..

    This contamination is only a result of Republicans weakening regulations in the name of job creation that historically has never been substantiated.

    That in fact environmental damage causes labor and industry to flee and area.

    Love Canal is an example.

    It is time that Republicans now understand that regulations on business promote an environment and quality of life that attracts business.

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