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Lackawanna County Commissioners ask D.A. to investigate water pollution

Sediment released during a dam project at the Dunmore Reservoir flows into the Lackawanna River at the river's confluence with Roaring Brook in South Scranton.
Kat Bolus
Sediment released during a dam project at the Dunmore Reservoir flows into the Lackawanna River at the river's confluence with Roaring Brook in South Scranton.

In a letter to District Attorney Mark Powell, Lackawanna County Commissioners say the pollution of Roaring Brook and the Lackawanna River by Pennsylvania American Water has caused severe environmental damage.

Sediment now flowing in the water will kill off aquatic life and it threatens the health and quality of life of residents who live near the waterways, the letter says.

"We are urging our District Attorney’s Office to investigate this disaster to determine if any laws have been violated," said Commissioner Matt McGloin.

In October, the water company began a $17 million dollar rehabilitation project on the No. 7 Dam at the Dunmore Reservoir. The work is to ensure the dam structure remains stable during extreme weather events and is in accordance with the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection's (DEP) dam safety requirements, said Susan Turcmanovich, spokesperson for the PA American Water.

Two large valves were opened to lower water levels to repair the over 100-year-old dam. In early February, upstream sediment from Roaring Brook, a major tributary of the Lackawanna River, began to flow through the valves. Now, four miles of Roaring Brook is full of silt and debris. It’s muddying the Lackawanna River where the waterways meet in South Scranton. The sediment is floating 7 miles downstream to the Susquehanna River — a tributary of the Chesapeake Bay.

"They think somebody should be held responsible for this. Somebody has to clean this up," said Donald J. Frederickson Jr., general counsel and acting solicitor for Lackawanna County.

The water company has since closed both valves, said Turcmanovich. They are continuing to work with DEP to mitigate and reduce silt from entering the river.

"All necessary permits were obtained prior to the work commencing, and we are continuing to operate within those permit conditions," she said.

Bernie McGurl is senior project manager for the Lackawanna River Conservation Association (LRCA). In his over 35 years with the organization, he has never seen pollution like this.

"For Roaring Brook and the Lackawanna, it’s a huge impact," he said.

The level of pollution is similar to what would happen after a major hurricane.

McGurl said the commissioners’ request is significant but he’s not sure it rises to the level of criminal charges.

"I think it rises to a huge mistake," he said.

The sediment is heavy and sinking into the spaces in between rocks and stones, which is the habitat of the macroinvertebrate community, said McGurl.

"That is the base of the food chain for the trout," he said. "So that whole habitat has been completely devastated from the reservoir down to into the Susquehanna River. So it'll take a multiple number of years for that to recover."

McGurl said state agencies are out taking samples of the river.

"Then we'll have a better idea of what ... the impact is going to be long term," he said.

Frederickson said, as county commissioners, they don't have the authority to do anything directly about the issue.

"We thought, at least in the county government level, potentially there may be some criminal liability. Maybe the district attorney should look into that and make that determination," he said.

Kat Bolus is the community reporter for the newly-formed WVIA News Team. She is a former reporter and columnist at The Times-Tribune, a Scrantonian and cat mom.

You can email Kat at katbolus@wvia.org
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