Writer Hopes Her Town Will Be a Better Neighbor to Its River

Environmental Commentary by Sara Kaplaniak

Down the road from my home in Central Pennsylvania, a battle brews around whether a stretch of the Susquehanna River should be declared “impaired.” This is in response to a sick smallmouth bass population exhibiting lesions, infections, endocrine abnormalities and decreasing numbers.

On one side of the issue, the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission, Chesapeake Bay Foundation, anglers and activists seek the designation to bring attention, and action, to deteriorating water quality.

On the other, the Pennsylvania State Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), tasked with declaring whether a river is impaired, agrees that the smallmouth bass are in trouble but believes an unclear cause warrants more scientific evidence of what’s causing the fish population to crash. The Environmental Protection Agency agrees.

They may want to check waters flowing from my town, Camp Hill, which the DEP recently fined $140,000 for 97 unauthorized and unreported sewage discharges into two local creeks during the past few years.

Camp Hill officials claim these infractions occurred because heavy rains in spring 2011 overwhelmed the wastewater system. During that time and in other similar instances, Camp Hill officials allowed raw sewage to bypass municipal pumping stations to prevent it from backing up into homes.

That made sense, as I had never seen anything like the flooding and rains taking place that spring. It led me to wonder whether this might be a challenge faced by other towns, many of which are dealing with aging systems built in the early 1900s.

However, the DEP has said both the number of discharges and the fact that they were not reported sets apart the situation in Camp Hill. Operators must report all unauthorized wastewater discharges to alert and protect downstream users. While this does occur, it is rare and usually happens only during state emergency events like a hurricane or flood.

With this awareness, my mind turned away from smallmouth bass and immediately to my children.

Each summer, a favorite activity includes taking a creek walk that begins at a park near our house. With water shoes strapped on, we step into a shaded stream that leads us to the more substantial Conodoguinet Creek. Once there, the kids wade in to their waists to examine crawfish, turtles and other wildlife. It’s a treat to enjoy this special spot in nature so close to home. But can I enjoy this outdoor activity while worrying my kids will be wading in waste?

DEP says it is on the case. Under a Consent Order and Agreement Order signed in May, Camp Hill Borough agrees to inspect its pump stations and overflow pipes daily, install overflow alarms and flow-monitoring devices to record future discharges, implement an interim high-flow management plan to address new bypasses, and complete a new pump station by November. Additional study and action will be required if corrective actions do not eliminate unauthorized discharges. Unreported discharges will be heavily fined.

In a press release, Camp Hill Borough indicated its intention to adhere to the agreement, which builds on $22 million in sewer upgrades, inspections and improvements completed since 2005. The town said that even though it expects capacity for handling wastewater to increase by more than 50% by the end of this year, changes may not completely remedy extraordinary circumstances.

I can’t help but feel concerned as a taxpayer, a parent and environmentalist. First, these hefty fines may affect my wallet. I also worry that something as innocent as wading in the creek on a summer day may jeopardize my children’s health. Finally, I fear for our water quality and for the wildlife affected by the disposed bacteria, chemicals and pharmaceuticals heading its way.

The challenges facing my town and others are many, including aging infrastructures requiring expensive fixes by cash-strapped municipalities, lofty and time-sensitive federal mandates, and possibly poor choices or a lack of awareness by the people in decision-making positions. Solutions are tricky but should begin with a simple premise: clean water is life giving. Water that isn’t clean, preferably pristine, takes life away.

Consider the smallmouth bass a warning sign. They are smaller than we are and have a lower threshold for tolerating polluted water. But we humans will reach our own threshold given time. Poor water quality and declining smallmouth bass populations also represent a lost opportunity for Pennsylvania, which boasts recreation and sport fishing industries that annulally generate billions of dollars.

Clean waters or sickness? Hefty fines or revenue? The answers are clear. Now let’s work together to find creative and affordable solutions for our towns that will give us rivers and streams we all can enjoy and explore with our children.

Sara Kaplaniak lives and writes in Pennsylvania, where she reduces, reuses and recycles along with her husband and two kids. Distributed by Bay Journal News Service.

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