By Rick Dandes
The Daily Item
HARRISBURG — Although state officials acknowledge there are serious issues facing smallmouth bass in the Susquehanna River — young-of-year die-offs, lesions on adult bass and inter-sexing of the species — state Department of Environmental Protection Agency Secretary Mike Krancer on Monday refused to call the river impaired.
But another state agency, the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission, disagrees and has been lobbying for years to get the Susquehanna listed as impaired.
It isn’t the first time Krancer and others have rejected calls to put the river on the impaired listing, known as 303(d), which would mean the river would come under certain federal criteria for discharges of pollutants, and studies would be prioritized to determine what is causing disease among the fish. States create new lists every two years. Outcries for the Susquehanna to be so listed were also rejected in April.
Krancer said the data does not exist to list the Susquehanna River as “impaired” under the federal statute. He cited a DEP 2012 Integrated Waters report, a biannual assessment of the state’s rivers and streams required by the federal Clean Water Act.
“Our final report is firmly grounded in sound science, and we expect that EPA will agree with it based on the science presented,” Krancer said. “Based on the science and law, we do not believe that the main stem of Susquehanna River should be proposed as impaired under the Clean Water Act. While we recognize that the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission and others had requested that DEP propose to impair a 98-mile stretch of the Susquehanna River, as we have pointed out on many occasions before, that view is based on very limited, piecemeal data and is not supported by the existing data or the law. But DEP takes the concerns expressed about the Susquehanna very seriously, and we are doing something about it.
The Fish & Boat Commission responded on Tuesday that DEP “has been unwilling to openly reveal the science that guides them” and that discussion between the two agencies “cannot continue unless DEP is forthcoming with their data.”
That’s what bothers Dr. William Yingling, of Freeburg, who has been fishing in and monitoring the river for years.
“The state’s own scientists have conducted studies that indicate a connection between the smallmouth problems and chemical pollution and lists the myriad of chemicals found in the smallmouth bass tissue,” Yingling said. “If the chemicals are in the fish, they are in the water and their effect on living tissues has been shown.”
DEP spokesman Kevin Sunday said the Susquehanna River data cited by Fish and Boat Commission from Dr. Vicki Blazer, fish pathologist with U.S. Geological Survey, had not been made available to his agency as a technical report nor has it been published in a scientific journal. DEP also has not had access to her data, he added.
Sunday said DEP is “going to study, in greater detail and in continued conjunction with Dr. Blazer, the issues she laid out in her data. We are going to do this and make a determination if there is a demonstrated cause and effect between water quality and these issues with the bass.”
Meanwhile, Krancer said his staff would be “working with the Fish and Boat Commission, the Susquehanna River Basin Commission and the U.S. Geological Survey to ensure water quality and aquatic life are being protected in the Susquehanna River. In particular,” he said, “we recognize that there are issues facing smallmouth bass. The actual cause of these issues has not yet been determined or linked to any particular water quality issue, but DEP is dedicated to finding the answer through a disciplined scientific approach.”
“Last summer,” he said, “the agency staff spent 187 combined days on the river collecting hundreds of samples to characterize the water quality in the Susquehanna and its many tributaries. Samples collected included fish, macroinvertebrates, algae, chemistry and data on the river’s dissolved oxygen, pH and temperature.
“Within the Susquehanna River,” Krancer added, “this condition has appeared in a few tributaries and the impact is limited to smallmouth bass.
“Our scientists also tell me that no cause and effect can be established right now between water quality and the tumors and lesions found on adult bass. It is not at this point clear how prevalent the tumors and inter-sex conditions are throughout the river, nor if they are related to the young-of-year die-offs,” Krancer said.
DEP will continue sampling at 30 locations throughout the Susquehanna River basin to develop a comprehensive set of data and continue to look at water quality issues facing the river, such as pesticide runoff, hormone-disrupting compounds and nutrients, such as phosphorus and nitrogen, Krancer said.