Pennsylvania Field Office
Northeast Region

Environmental Contaminants

Pollution is one of the American public’s greatest environmental concerns. Like the proverbial canary in the coal mine, fish and wildlife often signal pollution problems that ultimately affect people and their quality of life.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is the main federal agency dedicated to protecting fish and wildlife and their habitats from pollution’s harmful effects, helping to create a healthy world for all living things that depend on a clean environment. The Service has been investigating the presence and effects of contaminant in the environment since the late 1940s, when researchers linked fish and wildlife problems to synthetic organic pesticides. Nationwide, Service biologists seek to identify contaminant threats to fish and wildlife resources and recommend actions to State and other federal agencies to eliminate those threats.

Since 1984, the Pennsylvania Field Office (PAFO) has conducted dozens of investigations of potential contamination across the state. PAFO also provides technical assistance to private, state, and federal entities on the effects of contaminants on fish and wildlife. We cooperate with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to ensure that hazardous waste site cleanups protect fish and wildlife resources. The program also coordinates with EPA and the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection in the development and implementation of State water quality standards. We are also involved in assessing the impacts to fish and wildlife from oil and chemical spills.

Special Studies
Investigative studies conducted by PAFO have resulted in the discovery of previously-unknown pollution situations. For example, PCB contamination was discovered in Logan Branch in Centre County as a result of fish samples collected and analyzed by PAFO. State regulators traced the problem to an industry in Bellefonte, and a massive hazardous waste cleanup ensued.

Hazardous Waste Site Assessment and Cleanup
The Fish and Wildlife Service serves an important function in cleanup activities at Superfund hazardous waste sites. Pollutants present on Superfund sites can be toxic to fish, migratory birds, and other wildlife. PAFO has a full-time wildlife toxicologist who is funded by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to participate in EPA’s “Biological Technical Assistance Group,” or “BTAG” (for more information about the BTAG, see Through the BTAG, PAFO provides technical assistance to EPA on cleanup concentrations and techniques necessary to protect fish and wildlife and their habitats. For example, at the Jack’s Creek, Ryeland Road, and Sharon Steel (pdf 540KB) Superfund sites, remediation of contamination will result in long-term habitat improvements that will benefit fish and wildlife.

Natural Resource Damage Assessment and Restoration (NRDAR)
Our efforts involving contaminated waste sites go beyond cleanup to restoring natural resources lost or degraded from a hazardous materials release. Superfund legislation provides for restoring natural resources through a process known as natural resource damage assessment and restoration, or NRDAR. It involves receiving monetary compensation from the polluter, to be used to restore or replace natural resources to conditions existing before the hazardous materials release. Past and ongoing cases include Jack’s Creek, Saegertown, Keystone, Palmerton, and Sunoco/Publicker.

Jack’s Creek Superfund Site. PAFO biologists have been involved for a number of years in assisting EPA with cleanup activities at the Jack’s Creek Superfund site in Mifflin County. The 105-acre site is a former non-ferrous metal smelting and precious metal recycling facility, located partially within the 100-year floodplain of Jack’s Creek. Soils and groundwater were contaminated with toxic concentrations of cadmium, chromium, copper, lead, mercury, selenium, silver, and zinc. Most of the site could not support vegetation because of the contamination, and soils eroded off the site, polluting Jack’s Creek. PAFO determined that at least 5 acres of wetlands and 37 acres of upland migratory bird habitat had been destroyed or seriously contaminated. Although EPA required cleanup of the site, past habitat losses and possible future wildlife injury from remaining contaminants are not considered under EPA’s program. Under the NRDAR program, PAFO negotiated a settlement with the polluters for additional funds to restore habitat in the Jack’s Creek watershed. In partnership with a local private landowner and land conservancy, we used the funds to restore wetlands, enhance upland habitat, and restore a damaged trout stream.

Saegertown. At the Saegertown Superfund site in Crawford County, an industrial operation polluted a 2.3-acre pond and wetland with multiple contaminants, including PCBs and heavy metals such as lead and mercury. The pond and wetland were frequented by many species of migratory birds. PAFO’s Environmental Contaminants staff conducted a Natural Resource Damage Assessment, and negotiated a settlement with the polluters for funds to compensate the public for injuries to migratory birds. Following extensive coordination with numerous public and private partners, we used the settlement to purchase 626 acres of outstanding upland and wetland wildlife habitat in nearby Erie County for management and protection by the Pennsylvania Game Commission. Additional information about this site is available at

Keystone Sanitation Landfill Superfund Site. The Keystone Sanitation Landfill Superfund Site, located in Adams County, was responsible for contaminating groundwater and surface water with volatile organic compounds and heavy metals including mercury, zinc, and manganese. The PAFO prepared a natural resource damage claim for the Site based upon injuries to migratory bird habitat, including 2.6 acres of upland forest, 6 acres of forested wetlands, and 17 acres of emergent wetlands. Funds acquired from the settlement have been used to implement restoration projects, which include land conservation and wetland restoration. Additional information on this project is available at

Palmerton Zinc Superfund Site.The Palmerton Zinc Pile Superfund Site in Pennsylvania is the site of a former zinc smelting operation. For most of the 20th Century, the facility emitted large quantities of metals including arsenic, cadmium, lead, manganese, and zinc that were deposited in the Palmerton area including Blue Mountain and nearby watersheds. Because the high concentrations of metals are toxic to plants, thousands of acres of forestland around the plant were killed. The National Park Service owns and maintains approximately 800 acres of land that has been acquired to protect the Appalachian National Scenic Trail in this area. The Pennsylvania Game Commission also owns several thousand acres of State Game Lands on Blue Mountain. Hazardous materials subsequently contaminated several miles of Aquashicola Creek and the Lehigh River as a result of erosion, surface runoff, and shallow groundwater contamination. While the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency continues clean-up efforts, federal and State natural resource trustee agencies conducted a Natural Resource Damage Assessment (NRDA). As a result, in July 2009, five companies agreed to compensate the United States and the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania nearly $21.4 million in cash and valuable property. The settlement includes a cash payment of $9.875 million and the transfer of a 1,200-acre property (known as “Kings Manor”) to the Pennsylvania Game Commission. Monies recovered through the NRDA process will be used to restore, replace, or acquire the equivalent of the injured public resources, in order to compensate the public for lost services provided by those resources. The agencies cooperating in this NRDA case are the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, National Park Service, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission, and Pennsylvania Game Commission. Additional information on this project is available at

Sunoco Oil Spill and Publicker Industries NPL Site. In February 2000, a subsurface oil pipeline which crosses the John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, ruptured, releasing 191,982 gallons of crude oil into a freshwater wetland impoundment within the refuge. PAFO combined the resulting NRDA settlement with settlements from a nearby NPL site, and developed a restoration plan to restore freshwater tidal wetlands on the refuge that had been filled (historically) with dredge spoil. When completed in 2008, the restored, 10-acre freshwater tidal wetland will provide new habitat for anadromous fish and migratory birds. Public access will be provided via trails, pedestrian bridges, and a viewing platform.
Fact Sheet: Restoring Habitat at John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge at Tinicum
Last updated: April 27, 2011
All images by FWS unless otherwise noted.