MassWildlife: Tens of thousands died in North River fish kill

  • A sulphuric acid leak reportedly was the cause of a fish kill in the North River on Sunday. Contributed photo/CHARLES RICKO

  • A sulphuric acid leak reportedly was the cause of a fish kill in North River on Sunday. Contributed photo

Staff Writer
Published: 9/5/2019 10:50:55 PM
Modified: 9/5/2019 10:50:45 PM

COLRAIN — The state’s assistant director of fisheries said it could take a few years for certain fish species to repopulate the North River following a sulphuric acid leak that he conservatively estimates killed tens of thousands of mostly small fish Sunday.

Todd Richards of the state Division of Fisheries and Wildlife said Thursday that native fish will replenish the river in time, though some species will do so sooner than others.

An unknown amount of acid leaked from a seam in a holding tank at the Barnhardt Manufacturing Company in Colrain sometime after 3 a.m. Sunday morning. The acid that leaked from the tank was contained in a holding area, though some spray hit the side of the building and dripped down the raceway toward the North River. David Slowick, section chief for emergency response for the state Department of Environmental Protection (MassDEP), said the leak was “not catastrophic.”

Richards, however, said the event “certainly is considered a major fish kill.”

The acid flowed downstream from the plant to where the North River joins the Deerfield River at a spot commonly known as Sunburn Beach. Slowick said sulphuric acid lowers the water’s pH level, burning a fish’s gills.

Andy J. Danylchuk, associate professor of fish conservation at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, explained that direct contact with concentrated sulphuric acid — a colorless, odorless mineral acid often used as an industrial cleaning agent — can damage the soft tissue of fish. He also said it can be especially problematic for a fish’s gills, which are responsible for gas exchange and ion regulation.

Richards said the river’s native fish include white suckers, longnose dace and blacknose dace. Trout was one of the species killed by the leak in the North River. The state operates five fish hatcheries that raise trout to be released into public waters for recreational purposes. Franklin County is home to two of these facilities.

Richards said the North River will be restocked with trout in the fall and spring as long as water quality has returned. Slowick said Monday that tests taken that day indicated pH levels in the river had returned to normal.

According to a statement from the Barnhardt Manufacturing Company on Wednesday, the company reported the spill to MassDEP as soon as it was discovered and the parties have been in communication during the remediation process.

“We are sorry for any inconvenience this has caused for anyone in the community,” the statement reads, adding that Barnhardt always aims to comply with state and federal environmental laws and regulations.

Some Colrain residents who live along the river, including Mark Crossman and his daughter, Zariah Ross, voiced disappointment that they were not immediately notified of the acid leak.

Catherine Skiba, regional spokesperson for MassDEP, said residents were not notified because the spill didn’t pose a public threat.

“The pH of the river water was normal along the entire reach and there was no threat to the public,” Skiba explained. “Had there been a threat, public notice would have been issued.”

Reach Domenic Poli at: or
413-772-0261, ext. 262.


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