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Ecological Disaster Unfolding in Dunkard Creek
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by Jim Kotcon | 2009

WV DEP Says Toxic Algae Could Spread to 21 Other Streams

A long-running dispute over salts from gas drilling and mine discharges has turned into an unprecedented disaster in Monongalia County. Dead fish began to be observed in Dunkard Creek in early September, and within a few weeks, virtually all fish and one of the state’s richest mussel populations were dead.

For several years, Consol’s Blacksville No. 2 mine has been discharging high levels of Total Dissolved Solids (TDS), including levels of chlorides in excess of state Water Quality Standards. In fact, WV-DEP issued a Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) for Dunkard Creek earlier this year which was intended to limit pollution discharges and bring water quality back into compliance with Standards. Unfortunately, the WV-DEP TMDL included a compliance “schedule” which delayed clean-up of the Blacksville No. 2 discharge until 2013.

Due to poor market conditions, Blacksville No. 2 had halted operations for most of the summer, but re-started production in late August. Within days, dead fish began to appear in Dunkard Creek. But because of high levels of chloride, many feared the problem was actually associated with illegal dumping of brines and drilling fluids from natural gas wells.

WV-DEP eventually pinned the blame on a marine algae first reported from Texas in 1985, Prymnesium parvum. This “Golden Algae” produces a toxin that mainly kills fish but, unlike red tide, isn’t harmful to humans. It likes brackish water, and it appears that the right levels of salts, acidity, chlorides and sulfates were present in Dunkard Creek to produce a toxic bloom.

How the Golden Algae got to Dunkard Creek is not clear, but a leading theory is that gas drillers from Gulf Coast states may have unknowingly released it while pumping water from the stream for fracking new gas wells. It appears that the algae may be able to survive over winter here, which suggests we may have a permanent invasive pest.

Even more disturbing, WV-DEP admits that 21 streams of 10 miles or more in length appear to have salt and pH conditions conducive to the Golden Algae, including multiple streams in the Monongahela, Kanawha, and Potomac watersheds. No rules, or even monitoring programs, currently exist to slow the spread of the Golden Algae.

Meanwhile, the situation at Dunkard Creek keeps getting more confused. The stream meanders back and forth across the West Virginia/Pennsylvania state line, and the two states have not always coordinated their environmental permitting or enforcement on a watershed basis. Pennsylvania had granted a permit to a Pennsylvania gas company to inject well drilling wastes into a deep mine on the PA side of the line, but the company involved suspended its injection as the fish kill developed. EPA is now considering whether to revoke the well injection permit, in part because the mines into which the fluids were being injected may be connected, allowing brines to flow into Blacksville No. 2’s discharges.

West Virginia still has no limits or regulations to prevent gas companies from drawing water from streams, and no one has any clear idea how often or how much water withdrawal is occurring, although local residents claim to see trucks frequently.

In addition, some mine water is being treated and released into Dunkard Creek from a subsidiary of the Longview Power plant, AMD Reclamation, Inc. Although Longview had originally pledged to treat the water from the nearby Shannopin Mine and use it for cooling water, last year Longview filed a notice with the WV Public Service Commission to announce that it would get cooling water directly from the Monongahela River, and the partially-treated mine water would be discharged into Dunkard creek instead. Although the discharged water meets standards for pH and iron, removing TDS is a more expensive technology. Longview claims they can not afford the more extensive treatment to remove dissolved salts, but declined to provide any cost estimates.

The issue of TDS in the Monongahela River was also in the news last year, when violations of Pennsylvania’s standards for TDS were found to be widespread. Similar violations were reported again in Pennsylvania in fall 2009. It is clear that at least a portion of the problem is associated with discharges of gas well wastes, but a high proportion is also associated with mine drainage discharges, both treated and untreated. Efforts to improve enforcement, set tougher standards, and require better treatment technologies are proceeding slowly, as evidenced by WV-DEP’s decision to delay compliance requirements at Blacksville No. 2 until September 2013.

What You Can Do

Learn more about the issues at the Nov. 12 meeting of the Mon Group (7 pm, 406 Allen Hall, WVU, Morgantown).The Dunkard Creek Watershed Association has called for tougher enforcement and stricter standards, and the Monongahela Group is supporting that effort.

Also, contact your local legislators and demand t o u g h e r enforcement and strict standards to prevent the G o l d e n Algae from spreading.

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