CASTANEA - Richard Swope of Castanea, an avid fisherman, was taking his 4-year-old nephew, Zavier, on a short fishing jaunt to Harvey's Run late Saturday morning when he noticed the dead fish.
Shortly thereafter, the discovery of a suspicious container sparked a large response from emergency crews, including the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission, the Department of Environmental Protection, the Clinton County Emergency Management Agency's haz-mat crew and the Castanea Fire Co.
Today, the circumstances behind a massive fish kill at Harvey's Run and Bald Eagle Creek remain a mystery, and the commission's law enforcement arm is asking the public's help in identifying a culprit.
BILL CROWELL/THE EXPRESS
The unknown container that was found at the scene.
"We're investigating," said Waterways Conservation Officer Greg Kraynak. "We're not sure what the material was, but an unknown chemical made it into the stream and killed most of the fish in that area."
Kraynak is asking anybody who might have seen something suspicious in that area, and especially anything suspicious from the Castanea church and upstream to the Bald Eagle Bridge, to call the commission's regional office at 814-358-5250.
"We went to where the stream hits Bald Eagle Creek and walked up from there," Swope said. "I continued seeing dead fish until I hit the bridge, where I saw a container in the water. From there, I saw live fish above the container and dead fish below."
Swope said he and other family members go fishing in that region just about every day, and Swope himself lives a convenient block or two away, so the run is a familiar part of his daily life.
"Right around the canister it looked like everything was dying," Swope said. "I'm not certain I could detect an odor, but there was a faint smell of something I couldn't identify. I didn't know if it was a gas or a liquid and there was no color in the water ... I got close, then backed away, and I washed up afterwards."
A specialized DEP hazardous materials response team arrived soon thereafter, and took possession of the container, which was placed in a sealed container for testing. Field testing of water in the stream offered few clues to the type of substance that had been released, the waterways patrolman said.
"The container was much like you'd see holding CO2 for a soda machine," Kraynak said. "Somebody had painted it green. The theory is that somebody parked on the Keller Street Bridge, tossed it over the side and drove away ... It was upside-down in the stream."
Kraynak said from the way DEP handled the container, it appeared to be empty by the time it was retrieved from the water.
Waterways Conservation Officers are the law enforcement segment of the Fish and Boat Commission.
Officers undergo an extensive 52-week training program including municipal Police Officers Basic Training at the Pennsylvania State Police Northwest Training Center in Meadville, Crawford County.
The training covers all phases of police work, from the Vehicle and Crimes codes to use of firearms and conducting criminal investigations. Officers then complete seven months of on-the-job training with seasoned WCOs, including assisting with investigations, patrolling regions, participating in public outreach events and stocking waterways.
Area residents who want to report a suspected pollution incident can call the commission toll-free at 1-855-FISH-KIL (1-855-347-4545).
If the situation is believed to be an immediate threat to public safety or the environment, the citizen's best bet is to call 911 or the Department of Environmental Protection's emergency number at 1-800-541-2050.
The hotline, however, is to be used only for reporting suspected cases of pollution or fish kills. The calls are routed to the PFBC's Bureau of Law Enforcement at the Commission's headquarters in Harrisburg.
Residents who might have seen anything are urged to write the details down, including the time, date and location of the incident. If you see someone dumping something into a waterway, write down the description of the vehicle and driver and the license plate number. Take photographs if possible.
For your safety, do not attempt to collect water samples. Only professionals trained in the handling of hazardous materials should collect samples.
Inquiries for the northcentral region, including Clinton, Centre, Lycoming, Potter, Cameron, Clearfield, Elk, Jefferson, McKean, Montour, Northumberland, Snyder, Tioga and Union counties, should be directed to the headquarters at 1150 Spring Creek Road, Bellefonte, phone 814-359-5250
Spills and other emergencies can also be reported immediately to DEP at 1-800-541-2050.