By Don Hopey, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Usually when Jim Zoschg, a fly fisherman, hears big fish jumping it's a good thing. Late Friday night, on the Driftwood Branch of Sinnemahoning Creek in Cameron County, that was definitely not the case.
A Norfolk Southern Railway train derailment that morning near the north-central Pennsylvania town of Gardeau, McKean County, spilled a highly toxic chemical into Portage Run, an "exceptional value" wild trout stream and tributary of the Driftwood Branch, and Mr. Zoschg was following its progress downstream.
"I had a flashlight and was on a bridge near the village of Cameron and could see fish dying in the shallows," said Mr. Zoschg, a watershed specialist with the Cameron County Conservation District. "Out in the dark in the main flow, I could hear big fish jumping to try to get out of the pollution. That's something they do when they're stressed."
Twenty-nine rail cars derailed in the accident, including three tank cars carrying sodium hydroxide that ruptured and spilled 47,000 gallons of the liquid, which flowed into Portage Run, then the Driftwood Branch and then Sinnemahoning Creek.
The highly concentrated chemical, which is used in drain and oven cleaners, killed tens of thousands of trout, bass and other game fish, plus tadpoles, aquatic insects and waterfowl in 35 miles of those streams extending from southern McKean County through Cameron County and into Clinton County. At the derailment site the chemical was concentrated enough to cause skin burns.
John Arway, chief of the state Fish and Boat Commission's environmental services division, described the accident as a "major fish kill," and said the chemical was so strong that it leached iron out of the stream banks and turned the flows the color of root beer, making it difficult to estimate the number of dead fish.
"Portage Run was one of the better trout streams we had in the state, and it took the brunt of the spill," Mr. Arway said. "It really sterilized the whole water system and its toxicity was so great that I don't think much will be able to tolerate or survive it."
The fish kill is expected to be 100 percent in the first four miles of Portage Run, which had earned the highest water quality rating by the state and supported a thriving population of wild brown and brook trout, and also in the lower six miles of the run, which was stocked with trout. It is expected that all the fish in the 20-mile-long Driftwood Branch, which has a reputation among fishermen for producing big brown trout, also died.
Many fish also died in the first five miles of Sinnemahoning Creek, below the town of Driftwood in Cameron County, where it is joined by the Bennett Branch. Storms dumped rain in the watershed over the weekend, which helped dilute the pollution.
The spilled chemical, also known as caustic soda or lye, is used in several domestic cleaning products and also to manufacture soaps, rayon, paper, explosives, dyes and petroleum products. A chlorine tank car also derailed but did not leak.
Rudy Husband, a spokesman for Norfolk Southern, said all the derailed tank cars were removed Saturday and trains have been running on the rail line since Monday. He said the cause of the derailment remains under investigation.
The state Department of Environmental Protection will begin water sampling next week for aquatic insect life, including mayflies, stoneflies and caddis flies that fish feed on. And the Fish Commission will conduct fish population sampling to determine the extent of the environmental damage.
It's expected that the only fish that will be found in the affected creeks will have moved from unaffected tributaries.
"Those main streams will have to start all over again in terms of recolonizing fish and insect populations," Mr. Arway said. "There won't be any residual effects because the chemical will wash through, but for a watershed this big it will take quite a while, many, many years, to come back."
The fish kill and long recovery are expected to hurt Cameron County's economy, which counts heavily on a thriving fishing tourism business, Mr. Zoschg said.
"The Driftwood Branch was one of the top freestone fishing streams in the state, and this weekend people will be coming up here from all over the state to fish, he said. "This is just a tragic thing. You hear about it happening elsewhere, but Cameron County is pristine and unpopulated. This is unprecedented for this area."
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