LOCK HAVEN - The Clinton County Commissioners and state and local officials were struggling with a response Thursday morning, in the aftermath of a manure application that contaminated the wells of five homes in Crawford Township.
Local officials worry that the contamination might spread to other nearby homes.
Clinton County Commissioner Jeff Snyder said the families' immediate needs for drinking water have been met and will continue to be met for the duration of the emergency.
State officials have been monitoring the situation since Monday, when the situation was first reported.
According to Snyder, First Quality officials heard of the situation and stepped forward to offer four skid-loads of bottled drinking water to the families.
Also, the Department of Environmental Protection is seeking an emergency contract for a large volume of water.
"Some of it went into a sinkhole and as a result, there has been impact on some of the private drinking water wells in the immediate area of Davidson Road in Crawford Township, DEP Community Relations Coordinator Daniel Spadoni said.
"There are probably 15 to 20 homes in the immediate area,," Spadoni added. "We've been out every day this week, and we've sampled four private drinking wells thus far. We have been in constant contact with both the township and the county."
Spadoni said DEP officials returned to the farm Thursday, to discuss with the responsible farmer some actions he may need to take in order to prevent further occurrences. "He had a manure management plan that he was following," Spadoni said, "Unfortunately, this sinkhole was not previously identified, so this was an absolutely accidental occurrence."
DEP officials have also issued a new "manure management plan" for the Amish farmer - one that takes into account a previously unidentified sinkhole on the property.
The real solution will likely rest with nature.
Sink holes are common to this area of Crawford Township. The geology of the region also is dotted with features like caves and springs and all those characteristics spread beyond the borders of any specific farm.
Nobody knows how long it will take for the groundwater to become clear of the contamination as the aquifer cleanses itself of the manure.
Snyder said this particular sinkhole was not identified as part of the management plan due to the farmer's filling of the hole at the Stoltzfus property.
DEP regulations suggest that applications within 100 feet of existing, open sinkholes are prohibited, all year long.
And as for legal liability, while the timing of the application might suggest an obvious cause-and-effect, there's no way to say with certainty, beyond testing the specifics, who sparked the contamination.
Initial calls to the Federal Emergency Management Agency suggested that the situation was a local and county matter, so the county government contacted Dan Vilello of the DEP, and two experts in manure management and water quality to visit the site and review the situation.
Snyder said a later contact with FEMA had the agency rejecting requests for water buffaloes because officials there didn't believe they would be suitable for drinking water.
The Crawford Township Supervisors have also been alerted to the situation and the Clinton County Conservation District has been contacted, Snyder said. The office of State Rep. Mike Hanna has also become involved, he said, and local Emergency Services employee Bill Franz is monitoring the situation closely.
In the meantime, the commissioners and others are casting about for "water buffaloes," small water-tank trailers, to provide the families with water for their other immediate needs.
A dike of straw has been established around the sinkhole area to prevent further manure leaking into the ground.
Still up in the air are methods the families might utilize to clean their in-line and in-house water systems of the contamination. Officials are still looking into options.
The farmer, who local officials haven't identified, may face penalties, but it won't be for the mere application of manure.
In Oct. 2012, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection promulgated new rules requiring everyone with livestock - even one horse - to develop a manure management plan. Under that set of regulations, DEP inspectors could request record-keeping associated with the written plan when investigating complaints.
So every farm in Pennsylvania, regardless of size, is required to have and implement a written Manure Management Plan.
The regulations appear quite liberal, however when it comes to winter applications. Winter applications are prohibited between Dec. 15 and Feb. 28, or when the ground is frozen to a depth of four inches or the land is snow covered.
When spreading manure in the winter, there is a required 100 foot setback from ponds, lakes, tops of stream banks and above ground inlets to agricultural drainage systems where the surface water flows toward the inlet.
In addition to these 100 foot setbacks, manure applications are also required to stay back 100 feet (every day of the year) from existing open sinkholes, private drinking water sources and public drinking water sources.
In some cases, state and federal laws may require a larger setback for public drinking water sources. Another criteria that is in place year round is that manure is not to be spread within the channel of a non-vegetated concentrated water flow area, such as a swale, gully or ditch. This does not include grassed waterways because they are vegetated.
Each individual farm is required to make the plan, but there is no requirement that the state approve those plans. Individuals who fill out the forms do not have to be certified.
Farmers may complete the manual themselves or seek assistance from Conservation District technicians.
Spadoni said no enforcement action has been determined at this time, and that issue will happen at a later date, after the more immediate emergency is resolved.
As for the private wells, they will undergo a "self cleansing process over time," Spadoni said.