Environmental disasters happen all the time. But unless the devastation is overwhelming ? such as what happened after the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska ? society doesn't tend to pay a whole lot of attention.
As an outdoor writer, I am probably more sensitive than most when it comes to environmental issues. Yet even I admit that with everything going on in the world today, it's easy to watch televised pictures of a flaming oil well in Iraq or a polluted river in China and forget about it five minutes later.
What happened June 30 near in McKean and Cameron counties, however, hit a little too close to home. That day, a Norfolk Southern train derailed near Gardeau, McKean County, and dumped 48,000 gallons of a highly toxic chemical into the Sinnemahoning Portage Creek.
The spill took an almost unfathomable toll on the local watershed, which contains some of the finest trout water anywhere in Pennsylvania. Preliminary results from stream surveys conducted by the state Fish and Boat Commission and Department of Environmental Protection indicate a near total loss of fish and other aquatic life for 10 miles downstream and significant impacts for another 20 miles.
To put the incident in perspective, imagine waking up one morning to news that the entire Little Lehigh Creek ? from the trout all the way down to the mayflies and other tiny insects they feed upon ? had been wiped out in less than 24 hours.
In the hours immediately after the accident, dead trout, smallmouth bass, catfish, carp and other species washed up on the streambanks by the thousands. Witnesses say some fish were literally leaping from the surface in a desperate but futile effort to escape their watery graves.
The chemical that spilled from the train was sodium hydroxide, also known as caustic soda or lye. Experts say the chemical literally burned the fish's gill filaments, eliminating their ability to remove oxygen from the water and causing the fish to suffocate.
Jim Zoschg Jr., a watershed specialist with the Cameron County Conservation District, is among the local residents with first-hand knowledge of the destruction.
''You could smell it in the air, and I pretty much knew things were going to be hit pretty hard downstream,'' he said.
Of the areas hardest hit by the spill, Zoschg said about four miles were designated as Class A wild trout waters by the Fish and Boat Commission, plus another seven miles that are stocked with trout by the agency.
''It was a destination stream for people from all over the state, and a lot of people came up that weekend to fish, being the Fourth of July weekend,'' Zoschg said. ''They were in for a surprise.''
Two days after the spill, Zoschg visited one of his favorite fishing spots along the Driftwood Branch of the Sinnemahoning Creek, about 16 miles downstream of the derailment. Instead of a fly rod, Zoschg carried a digital camera.
''I was thinking, 'I should be down here fishing wet flies, and here I am photographing dead fish,''' he said. ''As somebody who has grown up on the Driftwood Branch and fished it all my life, it was just sorrow and sadness.''
Norfolk Southern and the Federal Railroad Administration are investigating the cause of the derailment. Meanwhile, Norfolk Southern has hired environmental consultants to begin remediation work at the derailment site and develop a restoration plan for affected stream sections.
The state is also in the process of compiling a complete assessment of the environmental damage. The Fish and Boat Commission will tally up the number of lost fish, while the Department of Environmental Protection is responsible for gauging the impact on water quality and aquatic insects.
Eventually, the two agencies will put a value on the damage and seek to recover those costs from Norfolk Southern. Commission spokesman Dan Tredinnick said the state also is likely to seek compensation for lost recreational angling opportunities and costs associated with conducting its investigation. On top of all that, he said, there are likely to be penalties for violation of various water quality and fisheries regulations.
Tredinnick said compiling the state's case could take a year or more, adding that ''we want to be exceptionally thorough to make sure we don't miss anything.''
It's too soon to know what kind of dollar figure the commission and DEP will come up with, but it's not unrealistic to think it could climb into the millions. The total from this one incident will almost certainly surpass the combined tally of $209,000 collected from more than 200 pollution cases the commission settled in all of 2005.
No matter the amount, a pile of cash will likely bring little solace to local anglers and nature lovers who viewed what was lost as priceless.
It's also sobering to think about how quickly other waters could meet a similar fate. All of the Lehigh Valley's most treasured streams ? from the Lehigh River to the Little Lehigh, Saucon, Monocacy and Bushkill creeks ? have major roadways and/or rail lines along their banks.
''I think it should be an eye-opener for the whole state,'' Zoschg said, ''because if this can happen up here in Cameron County, population 5,500, it can happen anywhere in the state. There are chemicals like this being hauled all over the state on our roadways and railroad lines, and you don't ever notice it until something goes bad.''
Bringing the fly fishing community together!