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Chester County Press

Aquatic life discovered dead in White Clay Creek

08/01/2016 12:45PM ● By Richard Gaw
By Richard L. Gaw
Staff Writer

Stewart Hanna of Landenberg has spent the majority of his life within earshot of the White Clay Creek.
His home on Auburn Road – where he was born and raised and still lives – is tucked quietly between the crevices of nature and waterway, and from his back yard, he can listen to the faint gurgling chorus of the creek as it flows by. When he was a child, the creek was less a design of nature and more of a companion to him, and he hiked along its banks, cooled the hot summers off his back and, with his fishing pole, discovered where the biggest fish were all hiding.
When he got older, the creek took on another role in Hanna's life – that of party host, where he and his friends and family would go kayaking, canoeing, and have picnics and barbecues. When he owned horses, the animals would venture down to the creek to luxuriate in the cool water.
Recently, the White Clay Creek has also become the quiet place where he and his stepson Matthew Hughes spend lazy weekend mornings and afternoons fishing for sunnies and mudsuckers, far from the hum the video culture and man-made distractions. Two weeks before, he had posted a photograph of Matthew on social media, that of a smiling young boy wading knee-deep in the creek, holding a freshly-caught fish.
Last Tuesday morning, July 26, Hanna and Matthew set off to the creek to try out his stepson's new video camera, in order to capture fish swimming beneath the creek's surface. When they arrived at the water's edge, what they saw was nearly unimaginable. Hundreds of dead fish lay floating in the water nearly as far as they could see, as well as other specimens of aquatic life: crayfish, big mouth bass, red-eye bass, mudsuckers, sunnies, trout and eels. The two then began hiking along the creek toward Avondale, and all along their nearly one-mile journey, the devastation followed them.
“I was absolutely heartbroken by what I saw,” Hanna said. “I was born and raised on this same property and this creek raised me. It was a friend of mine growing up.”
Hanna immediately called the Pennsylvania Game Commission and the Pennsylvania chapter of the Department of Environmental Protection (EPA), and when representatives told him that they had already heard from local residents about the dead wildlife in the White Clay Creek, Hanna was not surprised.
All last week, Facebook sites such as Landenberg (You Can't Get There from Here) and a page recently designed to promote the Aug. 6 Landenberg Day saw long trails of communication and concern by local residents over the fish kills. Some visited sections of the creek on their own and reported back to the news link; while others, like Hanna, contacted environmental authorities.
News of the kills even reached West Grove, where one resident posted: “Did anybody hear about the recent fish kill in the East Branch of the White Clay Creek in the Landenberg area? It was a toxic poisoning of every creature regularly inhabiting our precious water source. How many kids have found their way to their favorite watering hole in the last week alone?”
Rising water temperatures? Man-made pollutants seeping into the creek? Conservationists and environmentalists from the White Clay Creek Wild and Scenic Rivers Program, the Stroud Water Research Center and the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission have all opened up lines of communication between agencies.
One of those conservationists, David Arscott of the Stroud Water Research Center, said that he had spoken to one local resident, who told Arscott that after word spread about the fish kills, her son paddled in a canoe along the creek to look for a probable cause for the kills, and came across a dirty water patch along the East branch of the creek, where a new home was being built nearby. Arscott said that because eel were found in the water, it leads to the rising speculation that the cause of the fish kills may point to a man-made influence, given that eel are generally known to require low amounts of oxygenated water and thus are able to survive during the hot summer months, when creeks and ponds heat up and lose oxygen.
In a July 29 letter to Shane Morgan, the management plan coordinator for the White Clay Creek Wild and Scenic Rivers Program, David Burke, watershed manager for the Department of Environmental Protection's (DEP) Southeast Regional office, wrote that a DEP investigator inspected the stream near Laurel Bridge Road on July 26.
“He reported that all sizes and species of fish had been killed, so he suspects that something very toxic came through,” Burke wrote. “It appeared that the fish had been dead for some time (probably days), and there was no other sign or clue as to what kind of problem this was. At this time, the incident remains unexplained.”
Burke wrote that the DEP was not aware of any potential sources that could have contaminated the creek, and although some have speculated that the water run-off from a recent fire at a nearby mushroom composting facility may have released some potentially toxic materials into the creek, Burke wrote that there is no particular reason to suspect a connection between the fire and the fish kill.
“Rainstorms this week have been occasional and intense, and we know that generally, summer rainstorms sometimes cause sudden changes in water quality that can be shocking or fatal to aquatic life," he wrote. "But this is only a general observation, and it does not represent an explanation for this incident.”
In an e-mail to the Chester County Press, Virginia Cain, the community relations coordinator for he Southeast Regional office of the DEP, said the DEP has visited the White Clay Creek several times since the fish kills, and will continue to monitor the area. She wrote that whatever condition caused the fish kills has passed, and that the DEP advises all residents to use precaution when entering not only the creek, but any waters of the Commonwealth.
The DEP has asked that those who discover additional dead aquatic life along the White Clay Creek to contact the DEP at 484-250-5900. Residents may also contact the Pennsylvania Fish & Boat Commission hotline at 1-855-FISH-KIL (855-347-4545), to report any suspected pollution incident.
To contact Staff Writer Richard L. Gaw, e-mail

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