A gate valve malfunction allowed 4 feet of water to drain from Kaercher Creek Lake in Windsor Township.

It's another blow to the beleaguered lake park that was once a beloved recreation site in northern Berks County.

The boat ramp and banks of the lake are exposed, and officials say it could be weeks or months before the lake is filled again, depending on how much rain the area gets.

Late Monday night, Sept. 7, Fish & Boat Commission staff assessed the situation at the 56-foot dam of the 31-acre lake at the edge of the borough of Hamburg. It is surrounded by a 181-acre park that has fallen into disuse. A maintenance crew was on site Tuesday, Sept. 8, as well.

Michael Parker, Fish & Boat Commission spokesman, said the leak did not threaten public safety along the creek, which flows from the northeast to the lake then southwest toward the borough of Hamburg.

But it may affect boaters and anglers.

"The immediate concern would be for the fish population being forced into a more confined area, where they would be increasingly vulnerable to predator fish, such as the muskies," said Tim Maizaka, president of Friends of Kaercher Creek, a volunteer group that has taken on caring for the park after Berks County stopped leasing it.

"The loss of water also affects anglers. Some are telling me that the lake grasses, which flourish at Kaercher Creek, are posing more of a cast-and-retrieve issue than before. If a fish is caught, it must be pulled back through the thick grasses and there's a higher likelihood of it not being reeled to shore."

Maizaka contacted the state about the leak after being alerted by an angler through Facebook.

Maizaka said it may be difficult to get a boat in the lake now due to the low water level. Kayaks and canoes can probably be carried to the existing waterline.

Routine maintenance

Parker said the situation developed after a routine gate valve check late the previous week.

Paul Urbanik, chief of engineering for the Fish & Boat Commission, said the gate valves were "exercised," meaning the gates to allow water out of the dam were slid open and closed. It is a routine maintenance that happens quarterly, Urbanik said.

Urbanik said the gate is a knife edge that is supposed to close flush with the dam and create a seal. Something — a stick or mud — got caught in the gate when it was closed on the routine check.

The dam was built in 1971 as a flood-control project. The gate valve had been replaced in 2014, likely because of its age, Urbanik said.

On Sept. 8, crews were able to stem the heavy flow of water but some water is still flowing out, Urbanik said. The state expects to contract a diver to take a deeper look at the gate valve.

The lake can be as deep as 44 feet in some parts, Urbanik said.

Maizaka said some lake regulars are concerned that the lake had been draining before the malfunction.

Urbanik said lakes across the state can see lower water levels in the summer due to less rainfall or evaporation from the heat.

Gem of Berks County

The 185-acre recreation area around Kaercher Creek Lake had been gem in Berks County's system since 1972. The man-made lake became a popular fishing spot, known for bass.

Situated near Hamburg, the creek is named for Martin Kaercher Jr., who founded the borough in northern Berks.

In 1779 he received 250 acres of land from his father and divided it into building lots, naming the area Kaercher Stadt. Hamburg was officially founded in 1787.

The 40-acre lake is the culmination of a flood-control project started in the 1960s to harness Kaercher and Mill creeks, which flow through the borough. The flood-control effort was a joint project of state, federal and local agencies. The land surrounding it in Windsor Township became the recreation area.

But things have changed.

For example, the picnic tables are gone, and a pavilion is unkempt.

Berks resident Christy Schaeffer noticed and wanted to know what happened and where her tax dollars were going.

“Why is Kaercher Creek Park area not cared for by Berks County Parks and Recreation any more?” Schaeffer asked.

Schaeffer was concerned because the state's website says there is a picnic area and restrooms that the county maintains, which is not accurate.

The county has been out of the picture since 2014.

Tangled history

Who cares for the park is complicated. The bottom line is the land around the lake is owned by the Pennsylvania Fish & Boat Commission and cared for mostly by volunteers. The park's fate is tied to nearby Price Battery Lead Smelter Superfund site.

Fish & Boat Commissioner Rick Kauffman, a Leesport resident who represents the southeast region, said the commission maintains the area as a fishery, not a park.

Maintaining parks is not part of the agency's mission and therefore it doesn't have the staff or resources to maintain it for recreation other than for boating and anglers. That means the commission is focused on caring for the parking area and boat launch.

The park had been administered by Berks since 1973 through a $1 a year lease. All recreational facilities, except the boat launch and lake, were shut down April 30, 2014, when lease renewal negotiations broke down between the county and the commission over the cleanup of lead contamination.

The county wanted the commission to exempt it from liability should environmental contamination be uncovered in the future, as it was twice in the past. Estimates were that the county and the commission might have to share $1 million in cleanup costs, just a portion of the total cleanup.

In November 2012, according to Environmental Protection Agency records, the state Department of Health indicated to the EPA that members of the Hamburg Historical Society had reported visible battery fragments in the surface soil at the park.

The casings and lead were believed to have been deposited by the former Price Battery plant at 246 Grant St. in Hamburg. The plant was taken over by General Battery, then Exide Corp. Exide is now in its third bankruptcy in two decades and has other cleanup sites in the county.

The EPA conducted a cursory assessment and battery casings were observed in surface soils.

The EPA took X-ray fluorescence readings, which revealed lead concentrations as high as 3,500 parts per million, or ppm. The EPA has established 400 ppm for lead in bare soils in play areas and 1,200 in non-play areas for federally funded projects.

EPA reported the findings to the state Department of Environmental Protection, and representatives of both agencies returned to the park to verify the presence of casings and elevated lead.

When it proposed a corrective action, EPA, as it usually does, sought input from the property owners. The EPA proposed capping the area to protect further migration of lead and to keep park visitors safe.

Todd Richardson, EPA site coordinator, said the Fish & Boat Commission expressed an interest in the plan but had concerns about liability.

The EPA could not release the commission from liability but agreed to let the commission handle cleanup with oversight from DEP. The EPA provided data and its recommendations. The contaminated soil was encapsulated under 1.5 feet of clean fill because it was "not economically feasible to remove it from the site," according to the environmental covenant.

The work was completed in 2016, but the state had not taken confirmation samples to document the capping. Richardson said EPA asked the state to take samples and as he recently read through the report it was unclear the samples were confirmation samples but some were taken.

In the end, Richardson said the area, located west of the boat ramp, was capped satisfactorily and poses no migration or direct contact threat.

"We did review the action," Richardson said. "We took a look and we felt the work was done in a satisfactory manner."

State records show an environmental covenant was registered on the land in 2018. The limitations say if the property is developed in the future and soil is disturbed best management practices shall be used to limit worker exposure and decrease potential spread of lead.

The EPA continues to monitor the Price Battery Lead Smelter Superfund site and issued a report this month, the 2020 Five-Year Review. It determined there is no current exposure to site-related contaminants. It also has made more progress on the cleanup in Kaercher Creek Park this summer.

Uncertain role

Meanwhile, the volunteer group, Friends of Kaercher Creek, continues to clean brush and maintain what they can of trails and access. Their role is in limbo.

Tim Mazaika, president of the Friends group, said he submitted an application to the Fish & Boat Commission for an Adopt An Access agreement more than a year ago. He has not received a reply as of Aug. 24.

"The agreement would recognize our group being on the former park side on a regular basis," Mazaika said in an email. "We would cut grass, knock down weeds, provide access to shoreline fishing areas, pick up litter, cut back dangerous tree limbs and keep the walking path tidy for those still using it. All within the guidelines that were previously set forth during a discussion with the chief of the Division of Construction and Maintenance, John Sinclair and the then-Property Services Manager, Mark Mitchell."

Mazaika said one of the agreement requirements was to purchase general liability insurance. He found an affordable policy similar to one volunteers at the Kernsville Dam use.

The group has a permit pending for a fall volunteer cleanup on the park side. It's scheduled for Oct. 3, with a rain date of Oct. 10. To find out more about events and updates you can follow Friends of Kaerhcer Creek on Facebook.

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