DEP: Runoff into Spring Creek tributary ruled OK

By Cliff White — State College – Centre Daily Times

SPRING TOWNSHIP — Water trickles out of a small PVC pipe at the old Cerro Metals facility into the Logan Branch, a small tributary of Spring Creek, one of Pennsylvania’s most prized fishing streams.

According to a permit issued by the state Department of Environmental Protection, recently posted on the bulletin board in the Bellefonte library, the trickle could contain trace amounts of trimethylbenzene, benzopyrene, benzofluoranthene, carbon tetrachloride and dichloroethylene.

The posting, coupled with the announcement last month the Cerro Metals site had been sold to a group that intends to turn it into an industrial park, has led to public concern the chemicals were doing harm to the stream, which is rated “high quality” by the DEP, giving it special status prohibiting any degrading inputs.

That concern is ill-founded, according to the DEP, the facility’s new owners and local environmentalists.

“People are concerned about the stream,” said Bob Donaldson, Centre County’s former planning director and a board member of ClearWater Conservancy and the Spring Creek chapter of Trout Unlimited. “They saw the permit, heard about the business deal, and their heads started spinning.”

Some community members incorrectly thought polluted wastewater from hydraulic fracturing of the Marcellus Shale was being dumped into the stream, Donaldson said. The rumor stemmed from the fact that Shaner Capital, an investor in the business park, has ties to State College-based natural gas driller Rex Energy, and has also invested in HydroRecovery, a company that processes fracking wastewater in other parts of the state.

The DEP permit has actually been in existence for at least 15 years. It was issued to clean up groundwater and soil contamination caused by almost 100 years of heavy industrial activity from Titan Metals and its successors, Cerro Metals and Bolton Metals.

The current phase of cleanup efforts is related to petroleum-related groundwater contamination on part of the north yard area of the property, according to DEP spokesman Dan Spadoni.

“This groundwater remediation, which has been ongoing since last summer, involves pumping the groundwater to an air stripper and sending it through two activated carbon filtration units prior to discharge to Logan Branch. This is standard treatment technology for this type of contamination,” Spadoni said in an email.

Once treated, the chemicals are being discharged in such small quantities — in the case of some of the more harmful chemicals, at less than one part per billion — that they meet the DEP’s “non-detect” standard.

“Absolutely no degree of degradation is permitted, no matter how minute,” Spadoni said. “Discharge monitoring is required on a regular basis with the reports sent to us monthly for our review.”

The chemicals being dumped into Logan Branch “can be nasty actors,” said Bill Brusse, a member of the Spring Creek chapter of Trout Unlimited and a hydrogeologist with Converse Consultants, which specializes in brownfield remediation.

“But essentially, there’s no measurable concentration reported by the DEP, which means they’re treating the waters being discharged to drinking water standards,” he said.

The cleanup is a success story, not cause for concern, Brusse said.

“The Cerro project is a poster child for what the Act 2 was intended to do, which is putting properties back in play that were abandoned and not generating taxes for local communities,” he said. “It addresses the fact that there’s a need for new industrial space and it’s better to remediate a site with existing infrastructure as opposed to going to farmland and turning it into a new commercial or industrial area.”

ClearWater Conservancy spokeswoman Katie Ombalski said her organization supported the project.

“The DEP and (Environmental Protection Agency) are actively overseeing the cleanup, and we believe that they are doing a good job on the site,” she said.

Reusing the site as an industrial park could be a good thing for employment in the Bellefonte area, Ombalski said. She said she’s not worried about the nature of the industry the new property owners are seeking to attract.

“To make an assumption about what may go in there at this point is not productive,” Ombalski said.

Shaner Capital CEO Eddie Lauth said his group is committed to improving Logan Branch.

“I can assure you we really want to do the right thing for the creek,” he said. “We have reached out to Katie Ombalski and told her we’d like to work with her proactively to do that.”

Of the 15 or so leads the business park has attracted, fewer than half are related to the natural gas industry, Lauth said. It’s possible HydroRecovery might ultimately place a frackwater treatment plant on the site in the future, but the company has no immediate plans to do so, he said.

“If there was a facility there to treat fracking fluids, via rail or however it would be brought in, there would be no discharge,” he said. “The way it works is, the solids taken out of the water are, by law, taken to licensed and authorized waste facilities, and the brine water is typically reused for fracking the next well.”

The new DEP permit was issued as a result of the sale of the property. CMPS Transition LLC, a subsidiary of the Marmon Group, Cerro’s parent company, has retained environmental liability through its original sale to Bolton and the most recent sale of the property. Letterle Associates, formerly Chamber Environmental Group of Bellefonte, is the contractor overseeing the remediation, according to project manager Matt Whitman.

Historically, Logan Branch and Spring Creek have endured numerous environmental catastrophes, including a dump of sodium cyanide in 1956 that killed all aquatic life on Spring Creek from Bellefonte to Milesburg. There were at least nine toxic spills in the streams in the 1960s and ’70s, which often wiped out a mile or more of the streams, according to Bob Carline, a fisheries biologist, formerly with the U.S. Geological Survey, who recently co-authored an 88- page report on the Spring Creek watershed.

“Since then, Spring Creek has made a remarkable comeback,” he said. “Water quality in Spring Creek is better today than it’s been in 100 years.”

The biggest threat to the streams today, said Carline, isn’t industrial dumping but urban runoff, caused when storms flush water over rooftops and roads, where it picks up petroleum by-products, heavy metals and sediment, which is then flushed into the stream.

That problem notwithstanding, the fishing on Logan Branch, and especially Spring Creek, is some of the best in Pennsylvania, according to Brusse, of Trout Unlimited.

“It’s kind of remarkable both Logan Branch and Spring Creek are both in as good shape as they are, with all the development that’s occurred there over the years, and that continues to occur,” he said. “It’s good that folks are interested in keeping them that way. They’re pretty resilient streams, but that doesn’t mean we don’t have to continue to protect them.”

Cliff White can be reached at 235-3928.