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Searching Conewago Creek for effects of contamination

Written by Lillian Reed/Hanover Evening Sun | Jul 27, 2015 3:36 AM
lynn_miller_contamination.jpg

Photo by Clare Becker/The Evening Sun

Homeowner Lynn Miller, 68, talks Thursday about how the Miller Chemical fire impacted the Conewago Creek, a portion of which lines the back of her Reading Township property.

(Undated) -- Large carp were quick to gather and gulp at the pieces of bread Lynn Miller said she tossed into the Conewago Creek behind her home in Reading Township, Adams County.

Little evidence remains of what Miller described as a snowfall of minnows lying belly up along the banks and dead carp littering the rocks of the waterway only six weeks prior.

Now fish can be seen occasionally splashing the surface water of the creek behind Miller's home on Kuhn Fording Road.

Still, experts are trying to determine if life really has returned to normal after a June fire at the Miller Chemical and Fertilizer plant caused contamination to flow into local waterways, killing more than 10,000 fish.

The Conewago Creek was closed to swimming, boating and fishing for almost a month after the fire, which took more than 12 hours to extinguish and caused about $20 million in damage to the property.

On Thursday, the state's Fish and Boat Commission began a two-day survey of the main stem and south branch of the Conewago to determine the lasting effects the contamination had on the fish population, said Tom Shervinskie, fisheries biologist for the Watershed Analysis Section of the commission.

The surveying team used special equipment to generate an electrical current in the water, temporarily stunning fish. Once the fish were still, team members could tally the populations, Shervinskie said.

"We had two pretty long days," he said Friday. "We found fish in both waterways at varying population levels."

Surveyors plan to calculate the number of fish in areas upstream from the Miller Chemical site and use it as a reference for what should be considered normal populations in the Conewago Creek.

"When we have an opportunity to compare them to the reference site, we'll have a better idea of the long-standing effects of the contamination," Shervinskie said.

The commissioner will compile a finalized report on the findings in the next 30 days, he said.

Officials from the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection also closely monitored the presence of chemicals and fertilizers in the water following the fire.

Testing measured phosphorus, potassium, total organic carbon, nitrogen series, and metals, DEP representative John Repetz said Thursday.

"These things could be naturally occurring and could be present in an area with agricultural activity," Repetz said. "Sample results are showing the upstream and downstream levels to be comparable."

Samples taken upstream of the Miller Chemical site in Conewago Township served as an example of "normal levels" in the creek, he said.

"If the downstream results are comparable, and they are, that indicates that no additional contamination has entered the creek and that conditions are returning to normal," Repetz said.

Since the creek was reopened to swimming, fishing and boating earlier this month, Miller said she has seen people resume activities in the cool, clear water much like any other summer.

"Last night, there was a man fly-fishing," she said. "There were actually people swimming in here the other evening."

Still, Miller expressed the most excitement at having seen both big bottom feeders and little minnows darting along the banks of the creek once again.

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