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I-Team: Hundreds of plastic pellets found in Stafford Meadow Brook

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ROARING BROOK TOWNSHIP, LACKAWANNA COUNTY (WBRE/WYOU-TV) — Following a lawsuit filed by Montage Mountain Resorts against Pennsylvania American Water Company, Eyewitness News has uncovered potentially environmentally hazardous plastic pellets in a brook within state forest lands.

Montage Mountain Resorts claims plastic pellets damaged its snowmaking equipment, which draws water from the PA-5 Reservoir. The reservoir is managed by Pennsylvania American Water, who Montage Mountain Resorts is now suing for $34 million for damage to its snowmaking equipment that it says was caused by the pellets.

Eyewitness News went to investigate the area around the PA-5 Reservoir mentioned in the lawsuit. We found pellets in Stafford Meadow Brook, which connects Lake Scranton and the reservoir. Stafford Meadow Brook also lies partly within the Montage Mountain tract of Pinchot State Forest.

Eyewitness News followed state forest roads and trails to reach the brook. Upon close inspection of the brook bed, we found hundreds of plastic pellets that look similar to the pellets found in the PA-5 Reservoir.

Plastic pellets are used in the water clarification at the Lake Scranton Water Treatment Plant, Susan Turcmanovich, External Affairs Manager for Pennsylvania American Water has confirmed. Water from Lake Scranton flows into Stafford Meadow Brook which then flows into the PA-5 Reservoir and eventually into the Lackawanna River.

“Clarifiers are part of the water treatment process that removes solid particulates from the water. The pellets themselves are buoyant plastic beads made of NSF-certified (safe for use in drinking water) linear low density polyethylene (plastic) resin,” Turcmanovich said.

Eyewitness News showed a local expert the pellets we found in the Stafford Meadow Brook and images of the pellets found in the PA-5 Reservoir. Holly Frederick, Ph.D., an Associate Professor at the Department of Environmental Engineering and Earth Sciences at Wilkes University says the pellets used in water clarification are non-toxic and not harmful to come into contact with, but they do have an environmental impact.

At first glance, the pellets Eyewitness News found in Stafford Meadow Brook appear similar to small rocks, but closer inspection reveals that they are plastic.

“It’s not that the pieces themselves are toxic or contain waste, it’s just if they’re in the wrong place, they’re not providing the benefit and so they’re only providing a detriment,” Dr. Frederick said.

Dr. Frederick says the pellets themselves contribute to a larger problem of plastic pollutants in the natural waterways. They may be consumed by wildlife where they can take up space within the digestive tracts of fish.

Eyewitness News found multiple deposits of the pellets within the Stafford Meadow Brook bed. They were especially obvious under large rocks where in several cases, we found dozens of pellets. While the experts we spoke with could not definitively say the pellets we found in Stafford Meadow Brook are the same as those mentioned in the Montage Mountain Resorts lawsuit against Pennsylvania American Water, they appear to be similar in size, color, and shape.

“There are lots of resins that are used for treating water in different parts of the treatment process. Usually these resins are held within columns and the water is passed through these columns,” Brian Manger, Ph.D., Professor of Environmental Science and Biology and Environmental Science Department Chair at King’s College said. “For them to escape, I would think there would have to be some kind of breach of the column, whether it’s purposeful or accidental to allow the pellets to get out into the environment.”

The pellets we collected floated on the water’s surface and were uniformly shaped. In addition, their smooth surface and clear color was enough for Dr. Frederick to determine that they were in fact plastic. Eyewitness News reached out to Pennsylvania American Water offering to bring the pellets to their treatment plant for positive identification.

“We’d need to investigate the location and the material,” Turcmanovich said.

But she did not accept our offer to bring the pellets by for their staff to take a closer look.

The Stafford Meadow Brook is classified in the Pennsylvania Code as a migratory fishery. Part of the drainage basin of the brook is designated as a “high-quality cold water fishery” while further downstream and to the brook’s mouth, it is classified as a “warm water fishery.” This indicates that the waters in different parts of the brook should be able to support cold water, warm water and migratory fish.

“A lot of plastics that have been studied, they will degrade and get smaller and smaller but in general they don’t completely disappear. We’re finding tiny pieces of plastic in alarming quantities especially in marine environments now but marine environments tend to be recipients of a lot of, if not all freshwater eventually, so it wouldn’t be surprising that the same sort of thing would be happening in freshwater environments,” Manger said.

Due to their importance to the ecological system, the Pennsylvania Code says “waterways which have been designated as ‘High Quality, Cold Water Fishery, Migratory Fishery Waters’ are entitled to special protection.” However, Dr. Frederick says few regulations exist that specifically aim to mitigate the impact of microplastics in the environment.

“Plastic pollution in the environment like this is new. It is not listed specifically in the Clean Water Act,” Dr. Frederick said.

It is unknown if the pellets came from a single spill that may have occurred or a continuous release. Dr. Frederick says the only way to determine that would be to do a thorough study of the prevalence of beads in the brook and the surrounding watershed areas.

“If there were larger quantities of this plastic or if they are consistently carried out to the ocean and end up in one of these gyres that contain high concentrations of plastic, then that mass becomes a significant problem. Where they are now, it seems they’re a minimal risk, but again, understanding how they might move is important,” Dr. Frederick said.

On January 6, the Environmental Potential Agency published a report which noted that “research into plastics is in its early stages” and there has not yet been “enough research to determine risks to public health and the environment from plastic exposure. The 2019–2022 Safe and Sustainable Water Resources Strategic Research Action Plan (SSWR StRAP) issued in March 2020, was the first time the Office of Research and Development (ORD) included plastics as a research priority.

“Just like a plastic bag, they’re not going to degrade overnight,” Dr. Frederick said.

Eyewitness News spoke with Gene Veno, Director of Governmental Affairs and Public Advocacy for the Susquehanna River Basin Commission who said the issue, if there is one, lies within the jurisdiction of the Department of Environmental Protection. Eyewitness News spoke with Department of Environmental Protection Spokesperson Colleen Connolly who says the issue is not currently being investigated by the DEP.

Dr. Frederick says Wilkes University is considering studying the transport of these materials.

“Where it is now, I would say it is a low risk but understanding how it transforms and contributes to a bigger physical presence is an important piece to consider when we use plastics and how we use plastics and how we control them and realize that once it finds its way out there it’s much harder to collect it all,” Dr. Frederick said.

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