Although the long-term effects of Friday’s accidental dumping of 27 tons of lime into Powells Creek will not be known for some time, the spill was significant enough to worry federal environmental officials who characterize the fish kill as significant.
“For about 1,200 meters [from the accident] we found many dead and dying fish,” said John Schmerfeld, a biologists with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife’s ecological services field office in Gloucester.
Fish and Wildlife along with Virginia Department of Environmental Quality officials spent much of the weekend assessing the damage. Estimates on the number of fish killed were not available Monday.
“It was bad enough that we are going to continue to monitor it every week until it improves,” Schmerfeld said. “We’ll have a better idea of the [impact] after we get the second set of readings.”
Federal officials will return to Powells Creek on Wednesday to collect more data on the level of acidity in the creek and the size of the fish kill.
The lime was spilled into the creek following a single vehicle accident involving a dump truck from Meyers Trucking of Hagerstown. The truck lost its load of pulverized lime early Friday morning following the accident along U.S. 1 and the bridge over Powells Creek.
The truck was headed for a construction site further north on U.S. 1. Officials did not know on Monday the destination of the lime. Lime is often added to clay and dirt to help break it down. Lime is a generic term that covers a class of calcium-based, manufactured alkaline products.
“The high pH is too difficult for the fish to handle,” Schmerfeld said. “They will continue not to do well for awhile.
“It’s a significant fish kill. There is a sizable document population of migratory fish such as several species of shad, striped bass and American eel [in Powells Creek,]” Schmerfeld said.
Protection and care of such migratory fish falls within the domain of federal wildlife officials.
“We want to be responsive to the public and we are going to keep an eye on this situation,” Schmerfeld said.
Unhealthy pH levels were documented over the weekend in Powells Creek from the U.S. 1 bridge downstream about ¾ of a mile near the point where the creek water meets the Potomac River water.
Still, Schmerfeld said he did not anticipate any negative impact to the fish in the Potomac or further south into the Chesapeake Bay.
Rain, predicted for this week, could also impact the acid level in the creek. “We’ll have to see if [the lime] is flushed out,” Schmerfeld said.
Aside from monitoring the creek’s fish, federal officials also want to keep their eye on the vegetation that grows in the creek bed and wetlands. It won’t be until spring until they will know if the tubular plants absorbed enough of the lime to damage or kill them, Schmerfeld said.
“This could be a situation where the pH levels come down, the fish come back and everything will be fine,” Schmerfeld said. It’s just too early, however, to tell.
The dump truck was pulled out of the creek by Friday afternoon and an effort was maintain to clear out the lime.
However, DEQ quickly determined that more needed to be done. It hired a professional environmental crew to finish the job over the weekend.
“They vacuumed it up. They were able to recover as much as they could,” said Jeff Steers, director of the Northern Virginia Regional Office of the state Department of Environmental Quality. “We got most of it.”
The trucking company will be responsible for the $10,000 clean-up bill, Steers said.
“We’re supporting Fish and Wildlife. We’re still monitoring and will continue to do so,” Steers said.
Steers is hopeful that there will not be any long-term effects.
“That ecosystem should be able to recover,” he said.