A severe yet isolated flash-flooding event earlier this week in the Appalachian Mountains of central Pennsylvania ruptured a pipeline operated by Sunoco Logistics, spilling an estimated 55,000 gallons of gasoline into Loyalsock Creek. This tributary of the Susquehanna River offers paddling opportunities ranging from moving water through Class IV on its various reaches. In a four-hour timeframe between 11 p.m. (EST), Thursday October 20, and 3 a.m. Oct. 21, a USGS gauge in Loyalsockville, Pa., approximately two miles downstream of the spill site, measured over 3.5 inches of rain. North of the spill site, the National Weather Service observed upwards of 8 inches of rainfall.
These heavy rains created flooding and landslides which led to the destruction of a bridge on Wallis Run Road, located 10 miles upstream from the Loyalsock’s confluence with the West Branch of the Susquehanna. Photos would indicate that bridge debris carried downstream from Wallis Run to the Loyalsock caused the breach in the pipeline, which was shut off and sealed to prevent further spillage. As of Weds., the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency have not found any hazardous levels of gasoline downstream of the spill site.
Site of Gas spill on Wallis Run (top right), in comparison to the West Branch of the Susquehanna
It is worth noting that the lack of gasoline found may be due in large part to the evaporation characteristics of gasoline and the dilution provided at the time by a major flooding event. Prior to the rainfall (on Oct. 20), the USGS gauge at Loyalsockville measured Loyalsock Creek at less than 80 cfs. By 7 a.m. October 21, the gauge skyrocketed to 29,000 cfs — translating to roughly 13 million gallons of river per minute. The PA DEP and US EPA are continuing to monitor both the spill area and its greater body of water, the Susquehanna River.
Whether this most recent spill poses any major risk remains to be seen. Regardless, the spill brings to light the serious ailments plaguing the Susquehanna, a 444-mile river that is the largest tributary to the Chesapeake Bay, and which American Rivers tabbed as the country’s No. 3 Most Endangered River earlier this year. The major pollutants contributing to the Susquehanna include stormwater runoff from urban and suburban neighborhoods, abandoned mine drainage, farm runoff, and improperly treated wastewater. Playing a significant role in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed, the Susquehanna not only provides recreational opportunities from flatwater to big waves along its entire course but also feeds one of the worlds largest estuaries. The potential of the gasoline contamination has only added to the impairment of the river many mid-Atlantic paddlers know well.
“We have not seen the gas yet, however, we are all upset,” says Matt Samms, a team paddler for Pyranha Kayaks and local paddler on the Susquehanna, most notably at the Holtwood Whitewater Park, located nearly 150 miles downstream from the spill site. “The pipeline issue is a big one now, and the leak is why everyone is opposed to any new lines being installed.”
Jared Seiler, Holtwood Whitewater Park. Photo David Fusilli / courtesy Holtwood Whitewater Park
The water that flooded mountains and could therefore be carrying gasoline contaminants has not yet reached the paddlers of Holtwood Whitewater Park, an artificial course in its second year open to the public, which Samms helped advocate for and continues to provide his time. On Saturday October 22, while the effects of the gas spill and flood damage were being assessed far upstream, Samms and other area paddlers were participating in the second annual Holtwood Rodeo. The new pipelines Samms refers to are the increased number of pipelines being constructed and proposed to carry fuels across the Susquehanna watershed.
“The bottom line is the fuel companies are looking to increase profits at the expense of the environment,” Samms adds of his frustration with the environmental situation on his home river.
Blue Mountain Outfitters, a paddling shop and livery located 52 miles upstream from Holtwood, just outside the state capital of Harrisburg, has already received the bubble of water and reports from the EPA that the river at Harrisburg does not appear to be affected by the spill. Mary Gibson, a store manager at Blue Mountain Outfitters, believes the overall health of the river is improving, and cites the health of the fish as a sign of this. Just as Samms does, Gibson also enjoys paddling on her mighty local river.
“We don’t see and problem at all with paddling it, just don’t drink it,” says Gibson, encouraging others to explore the Susquehanna.