Trout will be stocked in a new portion of the Shenango River this year.
The Shenango River is always on the trout stocking list, and this year is no exception.
But there’s a twist.
The commission will no longer stock section 4 of the Shenango in Lawrence and Mercer counties. That’s the piece between the outflow of Shenango River Lake and to the bridge on Buckeye Road downstream.
It’s traditionally gotten fish. It received them as recently as last spring, in fact.
That came to an end in August, though.
The river section was found to be polluted with PCBs.
To make up for that, the commission this year added section 3 of the Shenango to the trout stocking list. It runs from the Hamburg Road bridge downstream to near the Big Bend access area.
That stretch is in the year-round trout program, meaning anglers can fish there even now. Most stocked waters are closed from March 1 through opening day of trout season.
All trout caught before opening day must be released. Anglers can harvest them after that, though.
The commission is suggesting those be the only fish anglers keep to eat.
Those PCBs are the reason why.
PCBs, or polychlorinated biphenyls, “belong to a broad family of man-made organic chemicals,” says the Environmental Protection Agency.
First manufactured in 1929, they were banned 50 years later because of their toxicity.
They’re bad news as a pollutant. And the Shenango River has lots of them.
Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection crews sampoled the river last year after the PCBs showed up.
Agency standards call for a total “do not eat” advisory on fish when flesh samples show 1.9 milligrams of PCB contamination per kilogram of meat. Smallmouth bass in the Shenango last year were found to have more than 10 times that amount, or as much as 22 milligrams per kilogram.
“So we went back to confirm, and we had extremely high levels. Very, very high levels,” said Josh Lookenbill of the department’s monitoring section.
Why the pollution showed up right away was a mystery initially.
When PCBs pollute a waterway, it tends to be a “chronic situation,” or long-term issue, Lockenbill said.
The department monitors the river annually and has since 2005. Early on it detected enough pollution to have a do not eat advisory specific to channel cats, muskies and carp in place.
But levels were low enough that other fish were fair game for the table.
By last summer, though, elevated levels of PCBs had reached acute – or severe and sudden – status, he added.
That was baffling, he noted.
“We should have seen it,” Lockenbill said.
There’s a theory as to what happened.
Westinghouse Electric operated its Sharon Transformer Plant on the shores of the river between 1922 and 1985. It used PCBs in that work between 1936 and 1976. Some of those contaminants leaked into the surrounding ground and water, including the Shenango River.
A contractor, under the auspices of the Environmental Protection Agency and its Superfund cleanup program, has been working to clean the site.
The thinking, Lookenbill said, is that in the process, drainage and sewage systems on site, which contained pools of PCB-polluted water, were damaged.
“What they think is, as they were cleaning up, they may have crushed some of that infrastructure and allowed during a rain event for some of that to escape off sight,” Lookenbill said.
Department officials have and plan to continue studying that, however.
Passive monitoring systems were installed in the river last fall. Lookenbill said they’re good at detecting PCBs and other pollutants.
Results of what they found are pending.
This year, the Department will survey historical test sites along the river, as well as several new ones upstream and downstream of the Westinghouse site, he said. That will involve looking at what’s swimming in the river.
“We’re basically going to collect every fish that we can, every species that we can, including sportfish as well as nongame species, along with potentially some macroinvertebrates, just to see what kind of contamination we’re seeing here,” he said.
In the meantime, neither the trout stocking changes nor the pollution precludes anglers from seeking other species in the Shenango. They can still fish for muskies, largemouth and smallmouth bass, walleyes, channel catfish and panfish, among other things.
They just shouldn’t eat those other fish, commission officials said.
As a rule, anglers are advised not to go overboard on eating wild-caught fish. The state Department of Environmental Protection recommends limiting things to one meal – about a half pound of fish – per week.
“This general advice was issued to protect against eating large amounts of fish that have not been tested or that may contain unidentified contaminants,” its advice reads.
Shenango River pollution penalties a possibility
The Shenango River is polluted.
Will anyone be held accountable?
Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission executive director John Arway said the agency is interested in seeing that they are.
He pointed out that the commission has successfully sought compensation for lost fishing opportunities and damage done to stream and aquatic life following incidents of pollution. It would be interested in doing the same in this case, he added.
“Now obviously, we don’t want that to interfere with the cleanup. But at the same time, we should not forget that we can bring that kind of action when the cleanup’s done,” Arway said.
He pledged to work with the Department of Environmental Protection if it’s interested in pursuing that.