Colrain fish kill, one year later

  • Barnhardt Manufacturing is located along the North River in Colrain. STAFF FILE PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

  • A sulphuric acid leak from Barnhardt Manufacturing Co. in Colrain killed tens of thousands of fish in the North River just over a year ago. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

  • After starting at a nearby bridge, demonstrators stood outside Barnhardt Manufacturing Co. on Main Road a year ago, a week after an acid leak at Barnhardt resulted in a fish kill in the North River. STAFF FILE PHOTO/DOMENIC POLI

Staff Writer
Published: 9/24/2020 4:14:11 PM

COLRAIN — Just more than a year after a sulphuric acid leak reportedly killed tens of thousands of fish in the North River, Barnhardt Manufacturing Co. says it has been working with state agencies and external experts to improve its site infrastructure across all areas of operation.

“We are committed to continuously improving our impact on the environment and look forward to sharing our progress on this journey with the community in the coming year,” company spokesperson Jennifer Bright said in an emailed statement.

Barnhardt, which manufactures bleached cotton fiber products at 247 Main Road, notified the state Department of Environmental Protection (MassDEP) at about 8 a.m. on Sept. 1, 2019, that its employees had discovered a leak about two hours prior and worked immediately to stop it.

MassDEP was told the tank was in containment and there was no release to the environment, but it was later realized the leak sprayed outside the tank’s containment structure, hitting a drainage swale and causing runoff into the North River. Containment of affected soils and a cleanup were conducted after this discovery.

Barnhardt issued its apologies for the incident a couple of days later.

“It is always our intentions to operate our facilities according to the state and federal environmental laws and regulations,” the statement read. “We are sorry for any inconvenience this has caused for anyone in the community.”

MassDEP spokesperson Edmund Coletta said the issue is being reviewed by the state Attorney General’s Office.

Mark Crossman, who has lived on the river in Colrain for 30 years, spoke with the Greenfield Recorder a year ago to express his anger over the situation. This week, he commented that the water seems healthy enough, but that he has seen no effort to replace the fish and crawfish killed by the leak.

“Those people didn’t do a goddamn thing,” he said.

Crossman said he, his children and his grandchildren swam in the river over the summer and no one noticed any environmental impacts, besides the decrease in some wild species.

When asked for information on the state’s efforts to replenish the fish population, Todd Richards, assistant director of fisheries at the state Division of Fisheries and Wildlife (MassWildlife), said the fish kill is still “a very active investigation” and the agency is unable to provide any information at this time.

Locally, the Colrain Central School spearheaded a project to not only teach children about nature, but also to replenish the trout population in the North River.

The school signed on to the state’s Teaching with Trout program as a result of the fish kill, and in June, first-grade teacher Lena Jillson and Principal Amy Looman released four buckets of 2- to 3-inch trout fry that the students had raised since December 2019.

Looman said previously that the fish kill had a deep impact on Colrain Central School students, some of whom live on the river and saw the dead fish. Jillson and Service Learning Coordinator Talia Miller spearheaded the service learning project, and school staff continued to care for the developing fry once the school building closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Sept. 1, 2019 incident also sparked a demonstration one week later, where about 15 people with signs and banners took to the bridge over the North River to raise additional awareness of the leak and to express disappointment in Barnhardt. The demonstrators convened for two hours before walking to Barnhardt for a brief silent protest.

Crossman said he wants Barnhardt to figure out a way to notify residents of this type of problem. He said neither he nor his neighbors received any word from the company about the leak and people could have been in the river at the time.

According to Barnhardt, a roughly ¼-inch breach was discovered on the east side of a bulk sulfuric acid tank. A plastic container was used to catch the acid and direct it back into the tank containment. Sodium bicarbonate, commonly known as baking soda, was used to neutralize the drainage swale.

Contaminated soil was removed and placed into metal drums. Two 550-gallon polyethylene tanks and 24 14-pound bags of baking soda were then purchased and Barnhardt employees began “a recovery of good product.”

The employees were then notified by Colrain firefighters, who were parked at the entrance of Barnhardt’s building, that there was a fish kill downstream and MassDEP was on site. Water in the tail race — a channel that carries water away from the building — and along Call Road was tested, and the pH level, respectively, was found to be 7.5 and 7.7, which are considered normal levels.

Fish kills, which are any localized die-offs in a fish population, should be reported to the Massachusetts Environmental Police Radio Room at 1-800-632-8075. A MassWildlife biologist will review reports of fish kills and determine if the kill is natural or requires a site investigation. The vast majority of fish kills are caused by a natural event, according to the state’s website.

Reach Domenic Poli at: dpoli@recorder.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 262.




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