There was nothing in the peaceful Sunday morning landscape to show that poison flowed in the river. The broad Susquehanna was placid below its wooded shores, and the group of fishermen who had come out from Wilkes-Barre looked forward to a good day's sport. Then they saw the fish, surfacing at a big riffle across the stream. They were walleyed pike and they appeared to be sick or stunned, moving sluggishly into shallow water, where they lay helpless.
Giving up their sport for the day, the fishermen organized a spontaneous conservation project; they transported some of the walleyes to a pool in Harvey's Creek, a stream nearby. But the walleyes died in Harvey's Creek just as their fellows died in the murky Susquehanna.
The fishermen reported the incident and went their way. Though they did not know it, they had launched a new and possibly crucial skirmish in the long struggle between conservationists and the industrial users of water. By last week this month-old incident had grown into a sizable conflict. The Pennsylvania Fish Commission determined that 116,280 fish had died and the north branch of the Susquehanna had been ruined for perhaps three years as a fishing stream. But for all of this, the real impact of the conflict lay in the fact that a new and potent weapon was introduced: money.
Broadly speaking, Pennsylvania conservationists, like those elsewhere, have had to rely on public opinion to gain their ends. The 60 fish wardens employed by the state fish commission might arrest an occasional profligate angler with more than his limit of fish, or a factory might be fined for having dumped large quantities of toxic liquids into a river; but, by and large, police power could not be exerted to keep fish and game abundant and streams pure.
Now, however, public opinion in Pennsylvania has been given a practical value. What is arising out of the Susquehanna case is a new concept of responsibility for destroying natural resources. To be specific, the fish commission thinks that whoever caused the deaths of the 116,280 fish should pay $58,504.50 for them—and the commission is pretty sure it knows who is responsible.
On the day following the first report, officials tested the water without discovering anything wrong. Next day a man named Donald Roberts reported to a fish warden that he had seen dead fish in the river near the town of Catawissa, some 36 miles downstream from where the first stricken walleyes were noted.
The fish commission consists of eight unpaid members, who make policy, and a paid executive director, who administers it. The commission member nearest the scene was Maynard Bogart from the town of Danville. "I went down to look into it myself," Bogart said. "I saw plenty of dead and dying fish. Some were jumping right out on the bank."
Bogart also called the nearest fish warden. Reports were now coming in constantly, and fisheries officials throughout the state were alerted. Bogart tried to telephone Robert Bielo, a state fish biologist, at the fish commission headquarters in Harrisburg. "I hung up and turned around and answered a knock at the door," Bogart said. "It was Bielo." The two men calculated that whatever was causing the trouble was moving down the river at about eight miles a day, and they hurried to a point downstream from Danville, where Briar Creek empties into the Susquehanna, to watch the reaction when the contamination reached that point. They met health department officials there. "They said they had investigated earlier reports but hadn't found anything," Bogart said. "Well, this time they did. I picked up a dead walleye and handed it to them."
Bielo counted 44 dead walleyes and one dead bass in a single eddy. The area where the dead fish were found extends from below Wilkes-Barre through gently rolling lands to the town of Sunbury (see map), a distance of 55 miles. Bielo and his crew retraced the entire route back to Wilkes-Barre, counting dead fish as they went. On the basis of their samples, running to about 700 for every 400 to 600 yards of the river, they estimated that 116,280 fish had been killed—big fish, that is, all of legal size to be taken by anglers.
On the same day that Bielo and his crew finished enumerating dead walleyes, the seeming source of the pollution was found. The Sanitary Water Board ordered the Glen Alden Mining Company of South Wilkes-Barre to cease operating a new pumping station that had gone into operation in early October.