Officials from a state agency believe they have pinpointed the cause of the deaths of hundreds of fish in a section of Pohick Creek in Springfield.
Staff members at Hidden Pond Nature Center discovered the fish on Wednesday, May 4, floating in a half-mile section of the creek on Fairfax County Park Authority property.
Patty Greek, regional coordinator with the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), said her department is sending a letter to Burke pool management company Crystal Aquatics, which she believes is responsible for causing the deaths.
"They’re the suspect party right now, and they’re the ones who are going to be getting the correspondence," said Greek, who conducted the investigation on May 4 and 5 of the creek after the DEQ received a call from staff members at Hidden Pond.
Staff member Mike McCaffrey said the discovery came during a creek walk with members of a local school group.
"We use the creek as a study area for kids and school groups, so whatever killed those fish could definitely pose a harm to us," he said.
Due to the great number of dead fish in the creek, the Fairfax County Fire and Rescue's Hazardous Materials team was also called in to investigate the scene. After examining the immediate area, as well as aerial photographs, Greek said she was compelled to investigate a neighborhood pool on Timber Hollow Lane in Springfield.
"Most fish kills have been traced to water line breaks or pools," she said. In the case of the Pohick Creek kill, she said, she discovered that the Timber Landing pool had recently been cleaned, drained and refilled to prepare for the upcoming opening.
Lt. Terry Jenkins of the Hazardous Materials unit said the main clue to the involvement of the pool was a substance that was found both in the parking lot next to the pool and in the creek.
"There was a white, granular, what appeared to be wet, powder there. You could see where water had run down into a storm drain, which runs into Pohick Creek," he said.
AFTER RUNNING tests on the substance, heavy chemical dumping was not determined to be a factor, said Jenkins, since the substance was a form of sand. At that point, the HazMat unit completed its report and put the case in the hands of the DEQ.
Based on the evidence of the sand in both the parking lot and the creek, Greek said she could link the pool to the fish kill. Initially, she suspected the kill was due to a decreased level of oxygen in the water in the creek, due to the deoxygenated water being pumped into it, through a storm drain, from the parking lot, and ultimately, the pool.
"Fish can’t live in what we drink," she said. "Fish need water and oxygen in the water to live."
Now, however, after reviewing the scene, Greek believes that, although heavy chemicals weren't dumped into the creek, enough chemicals were present in the stream to cause the fish kill.
"The circumstantial evidence in the creek leads me to believe it's chemical-related," she said.
Greek said the rocks in the portion of the creek affected had no algae on them, meaning something, likely a chemical, had killed the algae.
"When I walked the stream, all the rocks were clear, and when I saw where another stream joined into it, those rocks had algae on them. I would have expected the downstream portion of the stream to have algae on them, and it was not present," she said.
Now, a letter will be sent to Crystal Aquatics asking them to explain themselves.
Nathan Collins, president of Crystal Aquatics, which manages pools throughout Fairfax County, said he had not yet heard back from either the Fire and Rescue Department or the DEQ regarding the incident, following the initial investigation.
"We feel very confident, that to the best of my knowledge we complied with all necessary standards," he said.
Collins said the white residue found in the parking lot and the stream was marble dust which collected from the inside of the pool during cleaning. His company uses mechanical pumps to pump out old water, discharges the water into the parking lot, and ultimately into the storm sewer. He also said that he believes his company is innocent, since the work report states his company drained the pool at 1:30 p.m., after the fish were discovered.
Greek said Hidden Pond reported the fish kill at 3 p.m., and was waiting for documentation from them as to when the fish were first discovered.
GREEK SAID the DEQ hasn't completed its report on the incident, but that the letter it is sending to Crystal Aquatics states that the company might be required to recoup the injuries caused to the environment, since the fish in Pohick Creek are owned by the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries. Whether or not the penalty would be financial would be based on the number of fish killed. Greek said in her first investigation, she had discovered 120 fish in a 100-yard segment of the creek, mostly catfish, sunfish, minnows and suckers. The DEQ is required to investigate large-scale fish kills of more than 500 fish, which Greek said happens roughly once a month. Most of those kills are due to natural causes, such as temperature changes in the water.
"I don’t recall having complaints on pools in the last few years," said Greek, who added that pool companies can avoid hurting the environment if they take the proper precautions.
"Most of the pools are situated near creeks for some reason. If they take the right precautions, they can minimize their impact."
McCaffrey said incidents like this raise awareness about the need for caution in dealing with issues of water quality.
"A few dead fish, people don't think a lot of it. But if that's the attitude we're going to take, it's going to be a pretty sad natural world out there. It's kind of sad that this goes on," he said.