After reviewing three year's worth of water samples collected in rivers across Pennsylvania, US Geological Survey scientists announced that the stretch of the Susquehanna River at Sunbury had some of the highest levels of pharmaceuticals and other pollutants revealed in the study.
The lead researcher added that he hoped DEP would use the findings to help plot their strategy for trying to determine what is causing maladies in the Susquehanna's smallmouth bass.
At the same time, the treatment plant operators who work to make sure that drinking water drawn from the Susquehanna River is safe said they depend on DEP for guidance on what compounds to monitor. Currently, few of the pharmaceuticals found by the USGS researchers are removed from water by the treatment processes typically employed by municipal drinking systems.
This comes in the context of the ongoing debate over whether the middle Susquehanna River ought to be designated as an impaired waterway to provide the incentive and deadlines to compel DEP to sort out what is wrong as quickly as possible.
Former DEP Secretary John Hanger dismissed concerns about drinking water and pharmaceuticals but he said the smallmouth bass problems are very real. He wondered whether years of budget cuts and a pro-business ban on fee or tax increases have diminished the agency's capability to do its job effectively.
Over the last five years, DEP's budget has declined 24 percent while the department's Northcentral office has largely retooled to cope with increased demands for regulatory activity focused on the gas drilling industry. An agency spokesman has responded to questions about staffing at DEP by insisting that there are enough people to accomplish DEP's responsibilities.
Greater transparency would help matters. The Department of Environmental Protection ought to consider a strategy to explain fully to the public everything it has done and will do to identify what is wrong with the Susquehanna River. The department should explain how many scientists are assigned the task of solving this mystery and why the public ought to believe those researchers have the expertise and resources to do the job.
A fully-informed public would have greater faith in government assurances that everything is under control and that whatever is sickening the fish poses no legitimate threat to humans who drink, bathe or play in or on the water.