‘Forever chemicals’ plague Crosswicks-Neshaminy basin
Pennsylvania warns against eating fish from its streams
| May 25, 2022
Editor’s note: This is the latest in a series of stories exploring water quality in the nine basins in Pennsylvania that are part of the larger Delaware River watershed. How clean are your waterways, Pennsylvania?
Gretchen Schatschneider, the manager of the Bucks County Conservation District in Pennsylvania, grew up in the county, which she said has undergone significant changes from the mid-1990s to the mid-2000s.
The county, which is in commuting distance to Philadelphia, once was a suburban and agricultural area. Over the decades, though, it’s become more intensely developed, which has led to a “huge boom” in suburban sprawl and urbanization that have affected the quality of its waterways, Schatschneider said.
She recalled there were 14 farms near the home where she grew up. Today, there are perhaps two.
“When people say, ‘I want to visit pastoral Bucks County,’ I say to people, ‘Hurry up,’” she said.
Intense development has contributed to increased volumes of runoff, siltation and streambank erosion, which, in turn, are harmful to streams and fish. But as bad as those impairments have been, invisible pollutants – so-called “forever chemicals” – that have been found in the streams are even more dangerous.
In a recent report, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection flagged fish caught in 536 miles of streams in the Crosswicks-Neshaminy basin as being unfit to be eaten.
Of the nine basins that make up the Delaware River watershed in Pennsylvania, the Crosswicks-Neshaminy, which includes parts of Bucks and Montgomery Counties, had the most miles labeled as impaired for fish consumption.
All the impaired streams in the Crosswicks-Neshaminy basin in Pennsylvania (the basin also crosses into New Jersey) were considered polluted primarily by PFOS, and in some streams, PCBs, all from unknown sources, the report found.
The high levels of PFOS, which are known as “forever chemicals” because they do not readily degrade, prompted the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission and the state Departments of Environmental Protection, Agriculture and Health last year to issue a “do not eat” advisory for all fish species caught in the basin, including Neshaminy Creek State Park and Tyler State Park.
Notably, the DEP report found that 129 miles in the basin that had been considered “attaining” were now “impaired,” meaning those sections had deteriorated and were no longer meeting at least one of four federal water-quality standards.
Of the miles that were documented as backsliding, 26 were in the Neshaminy Creek itself, according to the report.
PFOS is one of a group of perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkl chemical substances (PFAS) that readily bioaccumulate in fish tissue. Samples of tissue from fish in the basin had levels over the do-not-eat advisory level of 0.2 parts per million, the DEP said.
Because of the advisory, the Fish and Boat Commission has, for now, discontinued stocking fish in the Neshaminy Creek basin. While fishing is still allowed, anglers have been urged to release whatever fish they catch, the DEP said.
“The idea of these forever chemicals, when you hear about how pervasive they are in groundwater and surface water and food, I think this is a very scary realization because those chemicals have a direct impact on our long-term health,” Schatschneider said. “If I had children, I could not imagine something more scary than realizing I’ve been feeding my child that food and water.”
Unlike other sources of impairments to waterways, such as siltation and stormwater runoff, PFAS and PFOS “feel so out of our control,” she said, adding that she was not trying to discourage people from taking action but that solutions are hard to come by.
“You can’t take up all the ground and what – replace it with fresh ground?” she said. “This is so pervasive. It’s coming from so many different sources.”
Contamination from military bases
A community activist group called Buxmontwater has been spearheading education and research about the health effects of PFAS contamination of local drinking water that has been linked to former military bases in Warminster and Horsham, Pa. According to the group’s website, the drinking water of more than 85,000 residents has been contaminated with PFAS.
PFAS has been known to be in firefighting foam used on military bases but is also used in certain food packaging, personal care products and manufacturing, according to the federal Environmental Protection Agency.
Prolonged exposure to these chemicals has been linked to decreased fertility or increased high blood pressure in pregnant women, developmental effects or delays in children, and increased risk of some cancers, among other health effects, the EPA said.
The hazards of these chemicals can be pervasive and long-lasting, the Delaware Riverkeeper Network wrote to the DEP in response to the department’s draft report. The network urged the department not to limit its review of streams near sites with known PFAS contamination.
“Because firefighting foam is a major source of PFAS contamination, there may be long-forgotten sites across the state where fires were extinguished but contamination remains,” the network wrote. “In addition, PFAS are known to spread considerable distances from the original source of contamination through various pathways, such as sewage treatment plants, agricultural application of biosolids and manufacturing with PFAS or PFAS-precursor chemicals.”
Development is also a concern
Meghan Rogalus, a former watershed specialist for the Bucks County Conservation District and currently manager of the Schuylkill Action Network, cited stormwater as another concern in the Crosswicks-Neshaminy basin.
Regulations in the past 20 years have started to account for the effects of stormwater runoff, she said. Development leads to more impervious surfaces, such as roofs, driveways and roads, which send rainfall whooshing into streams, giving the precipitation less opportunity to soak into the ground.
She described the basin’s streams as becoming more “flashy.” When it rains heavily, the volumes of water erode stream banks, which, in turn, harm aquatic life.
Schatschneider said that, as climate change brings more frequent and intense rain, it’s not uncommon for her to hear from residents that a stream in their backyards that once had been a trickle turned into a flooding torrent.
“I’m not antidevelopment,” she added. “I wish there was some understanding that not all land should be built on.”
Bucks County has long been attractive as a place to live because of its good quality of life and school districts and proximity to Philadelphia, Schatschneider said. The Covid-19 pandemic took that attractiveness up a notch.
“That first week of Covid, every potential subdivision, we were hearing they were selling out in a week,” she said.
Raising awareness that every individual can make a contribution to enhancing and protecting the environment is vital because every little bit helps, she said.
Michael Mele contributed reporting.