Disputes bog down stream repair

December accident hurt trout habitat in Cecil County

April 07, 2001|By Heather Dewar | Heather Dewar,SUN STAFF

RISING SUN - New-hatched and hungry, the young brown trout should be swimming into the sunlight now. In all the coldest, clearest freshwater streams of the mid-Atlantic coast, the twig-thin creatures have wriggled out of their gravelly beds during the past two weeks, looking for a good meal.

But yesterday there were no signs of young trout in the unnamed tributary of Basin Run that was considered one of the state's most productive trout streams - until December, when construction errors caused an earthen dam to burst at a nearby Superfund site, clogging the stream with a torrent of muck.

"I won't give up yet," said Howard Stinefelt, a fisheries biologist with the state Department of Natural Resources. "But if they aren't here next week, then either they weren't here to begin with, or they're sealed in their little tombs."

It has been nearly four months since the accident at Woodlawn Landfill in rural Cecil County inflicted potentially lethal damage on a stretch of the once-pristine stream. It has been nearly six weeks since everyone involved in the aftermath - three state agencies, three federal agencies, an engineering firm and a contractor - vowed a fast and full restoration.

But the stream restoration work has not begun, bogged down in technical and legal disputes.

One thing is not in dispute: The more time passes, the worse the damage gets, as spring rains carry the sediment farther downstream.

"There's been a lot of frustration on everybody's part," said Rick Grills, the Maryland Department of the Environment's liaison to the federal Superfund program.

"There's been a lot of people talking. Now there needs to be some leadership," Grills said.

Grills and others blame the delays on miscommunication and misunderstanding. "There's just so many players involved, and not everybody understands what they're supposed to be doing," he said. "Then there's the matter of the attorneys being involved in it. That always freezes everybody up."

Executives at Arcadis Geraghty & Miller, the engineering firm that has taken responsibility for the accident and its aftermath, said they expect to sign a consent decree with MDE laying out cleanup conditions next week.

"We've done everything we've been allowed to do" to repair the damage, pending a final agreement, said John Baron, a company vice president. "Our goal is making sure that what we do does not cause additional harm."

For more than 20 years, the unnamed stream retained its pristine character despite lying just downhill from the landfill, which was closed by state order in 1978 and was later added to the federal Superfund list of the nation's most toxic pollution sites.

EPA studies show that the ground water near the landfill is contaminated with vinyl chloride - the residue of wastes dumped there by Firestone Tire & Rubber Co. But the trout stream was untainted, and last year DNR biologists found 50 young trout in a 300-meter stretch.

Cleanup began at the Superfund site last summer, supervised by the Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Maryland Department of the Environment. A contractor working for Arcadis Geraghty & Miller capped the landfill with clean dirt and built a sediment pond with an earthen dam, to prevent the new dirt from washing into the stream.

In mid-December, the dam burst, sending heavy rocks tumbling hundreds of yards downstream, filling in deep pools where adult trout congregated and spreading a layer of orange muck over the gravelly ripples where female trout liked to lay their eggs.

Nothing could be deadlier to developing trout, Stinefelt said.

Sediment can smother maturing trout eggs as they winter in beds of gravel topped by fast-flowing water. When their egg sacs are empty of food and sunlight lures the young fish upward, sediment traps them in their nurseries.

Soon after the dam blowout, officials at Arcadis Geraghty & Miller notified the EPA of the accident. But Steve Early, DNR's associate director of freshwater fisheries, said his agency wasn't told until mid-February.

By then, the sediment had migrated far downstream from the blowout, though how far is in dispute. Arcadis Geraghty & Miller is scheduled to begin Monday a two- to four-week study to assess the damage to trout habitat.

Yesterday, three DNR fisheries biologists conducted an informal survey in a light drizzle. Two meandering miles downstream from the blowout, in a series of ripples considered prime hatching grounds, they found more muck and rocks than expected - and not a single trout hatchling.

The loss isn't necessarily catastrophic, Early said. If the restoration is done promptly and carefully, "this will hopefully, eventually straighten itself out," he said.

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