Thursday, September 15, 2022

Rare Eastern Hellbender Habitat In Loyalsock Creek, Lycoming County Harmed By Sediment Plumes From Pipeline Crossings, Shale Gas Drilling Water Withdrawal Construction Projects

Surveys of Loyalsock Creek in Lycoming County over the last two summers by
Dr. Peter Petokas, from Lycoming College Clean Water Institute, found habitats of the rare Eastern Hellbender salamander are being significantly impacted by sediment plumes from natural gas pipeline crossing and shale gas drilling-related water withdrawal construction projects.

The Department of Environmental Protection and Friends of the ‘Sock recently documented continuing sediment pollution plumes from a natural gas pipeline stream crossing and water withdrawal construction site on the Loyalsock Creek at the Pennsylvania General Energy Loyalsock/Shawnee site in Gamble Township, Lycoming County.  Read more hereRead more here.

Pipeline stream crossing sites are regulated through permits issued by the Department of Environmental Protection.  

Water withdrawal sites to provide water to shale gas drilling operations for fracking receive site approval from the Susquehanna River Basin Commission and construction-related permits from DEP.

Natural gas companies must also sign submerged land lease agreements with the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources for using stream and river beds between the high water marks of those bodies of water for pipeline crossings and water withdrawal points because the submerged land is owned by the Commonwealth.

         The Loyalsock Watershed is classified by DEP as an Exceptional Value stream whose water quality must be protected by law, with no degradation.  The Creek was also named by the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources as the 2018 Pennsylvania River of the Year and called a “timeless treasure.”

The Loyalsock Creek is also home to the Eastern Hellbender, named the state’s official amphibian and “Pennsylvania Clean Water Ambassador” after a nearly three-year campaign by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation PA High School Student Leadership Council. Read more here.  

Much of the initiative was centered on Loyalsock Creek and Lycoming County because that’s where the Eastern Hellbender was discovered.

Both prime sponsors of the legislation making the designation came from Lycoming County as a result-- Sen. Gene Yaw (R-Lycoming) and former Rep. Garth Everett (R-Lycoming).

Dr. Peter Petokas at the Lycoming College Clean Water Institute in Williamsport, Lycoming County who initially found the salamanders is a recognized Hellbender expert.

Eastern Hellbenders

Eastern Hellbenders are the giants of the salamander world and can attain lengths of up to 29 inches long.  

In Pennsylvania, they are designated a species of concern because of its declining population Read more here.  They only thrive in clean water and live in a specific kind of rocky, stream bottom habitat.  Read more here.  

Eastern Hellbenders were first discovered in Northcentral Pennsylvania by Dr. Petokas in the Loyalsock Creek Watershed in 2005.  Read more here.  They have also been discovered in a few locations in rivers and streams in Western Pennsylvania.  Read more here

New Creek Surveys Find Bad News

Recently, Dr. Petokas decided to go back to the Loyalsock Creek and resurvey the creek to see what the population of Eastern Hellbenders is today.  

What he found was something he did not expect-- ruined Hellbender habitats.

“We decided we were going to try to more thoroughly assess the animal in the entire [Loyalsock] watershed, all the way from Forksville down to Montoursville,” said Dr. Petokas.  “Most of the work involves scuba diving because we were looking at deep water sites where there are refugia here for these animals where the habitat potentially still exists. 

“So that started last summer, and then we repeated the study again this summer. And what we found was that there are a couple of pockets of hellbenders at a couple of locations. These are deep water sites up to 30 feet deep, and there are other animals at other sites as well, but not as many,” Dr. Petokas explained.

“So what's interesting is that these deep water sites are generally a product of some kind of a bedrock control, where the bedrock creates a situation where flowing water actually scoops out the sediments and that leaves on the bottom of the creek large boulders. It also exposes cracks in the bedrock that the animals can occupy.

“What we found about a month ago, we were diving one of the most downstream sites just above Montoursville, and we discovered that much of the creek had filled in as a result of the instream gas pipeline work that they did last summer,” said Dr. Petokas.

The site Dr. Petokas referred to was a project to rebury two Williams Transco natural gas pipelines crossing the Loyalsock Creek that were exposed during the rains from Tropical Storm Lee in 2011 adjacent to Lyons Barr Road in Fairfield and Loyalsock Townships, Lycoming County.  Read more here.

The pipelines almost formed a dam across the Creek making it tough for canoes and kayaks to cross.

“That construction literally filled in much of the [Hellbender] habitat immediately downstream of it [with sediment],” said Dr. Petokas.  “And so that did a significant amount of damage to the habitat.”

“And you also get a lot of the fine sediment, too, that literally fills in the gaps in the rocks. So that instead of having spaces between rocks, we call these interstitial spaces,” Dr. Petokas explained.

“And that historically, going back to 2006-2008 in the videos that I took, you can actually see all the spaces down in the rock and you can see the hellbenders down in there, but there's no spaces any longer. It's all the sediment that's being discharged into the creek [from the construction projects] creating a loss of a significant amount of habitat.”

Dr. Petokas reported he and his Hellbender survey team were working at a known Hellbender habitat site below the Pennsylvania General Energy Loyalsock/Shawnee natural gas pipeline and surface water withdrawal construction site in late August and around the time when DEP’s inspection reports documented significant muddy, sediment plumes going downstream from the site.  Read more here.

DEP inspectors were on the construction site August 24, August 25, August 26, August 30, August 31, September 1, September 6, September 8 and September 9.

“Now for water withdrawals, I don't know that much about this particular site, and I don't know what happened there, but obviously something went wrong, and I was told that the coffer dam broke and discharged all the sediment,” said Dr. Petokas.  “This discharge might have been going on before then too.”

He said he saw the same impacts from water withdrawal site construction in the Pine Creek Watershed, part of which is also in Lycoming County.

“We're seeing an association with these water withdrawal sites and pipeline crossings as we're seeing a huge amount of sediment that's being discharged into the creek. And it's basically filling in the little few habitats that still remain in the creek,” said Dr. Petokas.

“The habitat now is so darn limiting for this animal. Anything you do is only going to do harm.”  


The most obvious way to prevent Hellbender habitat damage is to prevent muddy, sediment plumes from getting into a stream in the first place with an evaluation of where these facilities are sited related to Hellbender habitats and strong erosion and sedimentation controls measures.

Dr. Petokas has several recommendations based on his experience with Hellbenders.

He said the companies doing these projects are “not getting good information in terms of advice for hellbenders or even for fish, because that's important fish habitat.”

On the Lyons Barr Road stream crossing, Dr. Petokas said the company simply did a cut in the creek bed to put the pipe in and created a broad, shallow channel that didn’t flush any sediment out because the flows were too weak.

He said one of the best things companies could do is control the flow of water going downstream in a way that keeps the sediment from accumulating and literally “flush the sediment.”

“If the flow conditions are adequate, if you have a narrower channel, if you have deflectors that are pushing the water into a more narrow channel, then you can flush [the sediment through] the habitat downstream,” said Dr. Petokas.

“One of the issues that constantly comes up... and I've had discussions with a lot of people in different watershed groups, is if you're going to go in and do stream restoration work, you need to put in Hellbender habitat if it's a Hellbender stream.”

Dr. Petokas said Hellbender habitat information is included in the PA Natural Diversity Inventory system DEP environmental permittees use to find endangered, threatened, rare and species of concern so they could be identified ahead of time and considered in planning these projects.

He said a major step resource agencies could also take is to provide more protection for Hellbenders.

“They call it a species of special concern, but that does not provide much protection for the animal. It's just simply a category into which they put species that are at risk,” said Dr. Petokas.  “So rather than list the hellbender as threatened, in my opinion, [it should be listed as] endangered in the Susquehanna [River Watershed] because it only occurs in three, actually four locations today in the entire watershed. And that includes the New York portion of it.”

Visit Dr. Petokas’ new website on Hellbenders to learn more about this species.

Western PA Conservancy

Eric Chapman, Senior Director Of Aquatic Science for the Western PA Conservancy, said, “Anytime you have excessive amounts of sedimentation coming into a stream, especially with those two groups of species [Hellbenders and freshwater mussels], it's going to be problematic because of choking out habitat.

“Then with the mussels in particular, it'd be clogging gills and they get instantaneously covered with sediment. They can't respire or filter feed or anything. So it's going to be very tough on them too.”

“I haven't done any surveys directly below any of those [pipeline] crossings or water withdrawal points. Where we've been working, the two haven't collided with each other yet. I'm sure it will eventually.”

“I don't have particular instances or locations that I've seen that [Hellbender habitat impacts from pipeline crossings], but just as a general standpoint, yeah, that's not going to be good.”

“Peter [Dr. Petokas] knows that watershed [Loyalsock] really well. I mean, that's his baby. Well, he's been doing Loyalsock work for probably 15, 20 years. He knows that area.”

Visit the Western PA Conservancy’s Species At Risk - Eastern Hellbender webpage for more information on Hellbenders in Western Pennsylvania.

Status Of Investigation Into Sediment Plumes

The Department of Environmental Protection Oil & Gas Program and Fish and Boat Commission are investigating the failure of erosion controls to protect water quality at the Pennsylvania General Energy (PGE) Loyalsock/Shawnee natural gas pipeline and a surface water withdrawal construction site on the Loyalsock Creek in Lycoming County, according to Friends of the ‘Sock

On September 12, spokesperson Megan Lehman from DEP’s Northcentral Regional Office said DEP’s Oil and Gas Program staff became concerned about the site when a routine inspection on August 24 found significant problems with erosion and sedimentation controls and muddy discharges of sediment into the Loyalsock Creek the company failed to report to the agency.

“During this inspection, DEP personnel observed multiple violations of the Clean Streams Law at the site, including an unacceptable discharge of sediment into the Loyalsock Creek,” said Megan Lehman, a spokesperson for DEP’s Northcentral Regional Office in Williamsport.

“DEP has conducted multiple additional onsite inspections and has been engaged in ongoing discussions with the permittee regarding steps to address the issues at the site and with the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission, which is also investigating,” said Lehman.  “DEP has also received complaints from the public regarding the issues at the site.  DEP will continue to follow up as appropriate.”   Read more here.

Public Urged To Report Problems

“Any member of the public concerned about this or other potential environmental issues they may observe at any time should contact their regional DEP office to file a complaint,” said Lehman.  “Complaints may be filed over the phone or through a web form.”

“DEP investigates all complaints and will keep complainant identities confidential.”

         For more information on specific follow-up actions, contact Megan Lehman, DEP’s Environmental Community Relations officer at 570-327-3659.

(Photos: Top- Dr. Petokas - Normal Loyalsock Creek flow; Sediment plume at Hellbender habitat survey site below Shawnee construction site; Hellbender in habitat where sediment is accumulating below Shawnee construction site;  Middle- Friends of ‘Sock - coffer dam washing away at Shawnee construction site; DEP - failed erosion controls at Shawnee construction site; DEP - sediment plume from Shawnee construction site; Bottom - Dr. Petokas and Hellbender; Closer look at a Hellbender; Some of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation students that worked to name the Hellbender the state amphibian.)



-- Williamsport Sun: DEP: Marcellus Shale Company Polluted Loyalsock Creek

-- The Standard-Journal: Friends Of The ‘Sock Monitoring Pipeline Work Along Loyalsock Creek

-- NPR: Wildlife Conservation Tends To Save Charismatic Species, That May Be About To Change [Uses PA’s Eastern Hellbender Designation As An Example]

Related Articles:

-- DEP, Fish & Boat Commission Investigate Multiple, Continuing Water Pollution Discharges From PGE Natural Gas Pipeline Construction Site On Loyalsock Creek, Lycoming County  [PaEN]

-- Exceptional Value Water Quality Designation, State Forest Land, River Honors Were Not Enough To Protect Loyalsock Creek From Natural Gas Drilling & Pipelines In Lycoming County - By Friends Of The 'Sock   [PaEN]

[Posted: September 15, 2022]   PA Environment Digest

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