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The Mysterious Death of Dunkard Creek: Is Fracking to Blame for One of the Worst Ecological Disasters in the East?

Scientists have been left with more questions than answers after a massive die-off in an Appalachian stream near mining and fracking operations.

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The EPA and state regulatory agencies have concluded that acid mine drainage from Consul's coalmine led to the algae bloom. But many area residents, some local conservation officers, and the lead EPA investigator on the case have cast doubt on that assumption. They believe the stresses of coal bed methane extraction and hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, in the Marcellus Shale also contributed to the stream's worsening condition. They argue that acid mine drainage alone doesn't explain the changes that occurred in the stream's composition and that illegal dumping of wastewater and water withdrawals from Dunkard Creek must have played some part in the algae bloom.

The fish kill at Dunkard Creek points to a systemic threat that could jeopardize the watersheds of an entire region. As unconventional shale gas production expands throughout the Northeast (conservative estimates are that 60,000 wells will be drilled in Pennsylvania alone over the next two decades) its rivers and streams may be forced to absorb increasingly large volumes of exceptionally salty water -- water ten to twenty times more saline than seawater. "Produced water," as it is referred to by the industry, is a mix of fracking chemicals, water, and dissolved shale formation solids; it represents the largest volume byproduct of oil and gas exploration and production in the United States.

Pennsylvania officials, at least, seem to recognize that improper disposal of produced water would lead to an environmental and public health fiasco. State regulators recently said that municipal treatment plants would no longer be permitted to accept Marcellus Shale wastewater, a major policy reversal. What the state plans to do with the billions of gallons of wastewater created during the drilling process remains unclear.

Dunkard Creek snakes along the Pennsylvania-West Virginia border and eventually empties into the Monongahela River, which flows north to Pittsburgh. The creek was long considered one of the most diverse streams in the Monongahela watershed. Known for its muskellunge fishing, it also supported an unusually rich population of freshwater mussels. The area is also dotted with coalmines, many of which discharge acid drainage directly into the creek and its tributaries. Massive underground mine pools must be continuously pumped either by the companies that own them or, if they've been abandoned, by the state. Billions of gallons of treated wastewater are discharged into the Monongahela River basin annually.

In recent years, coal bed methane extraction -- the absorption of natural gas from coal seams -- along with natural gas hydraulic fracturing in the Marcellus Shale have placed further stresses on the river in the form of water withdrawals and wastewater disposal. In Greene County, through which Dunkard Creek runs, more than 250 natural gas wells have been drilled in just a few years. Consol, the largest producer of coal from underground mines in the United States, has described the fossil fuel-rich area as "the continental US equivalent of Prudhoe Bay." Like Alaska's Prudhoe Bay, the region has begun to experience the impacts of large-scale industrial development and resource extraction.

A month after the fish kill, state and federal officials pointed to acid mine drainage -- Consol had been discharging the waste directly into Dunkard Creek for decades -- as the cause of the algae bloom and fish kill. Found worldwide in estuarine waters, golden algae was first reported in the United States, in Texas, in 1985. Since then it has killed more than 12 million fish in Texas and has slowly spread to several other river basins. The algae responds to certain stressed environments by releasing a toxin that ruptures the tissue cells in the mouths and gills of fish, depriving them of oxygen and causing them to suffocate -- hence the desperate attempts of the fish and mudpuppies to escape the river. Until the Dunkard Creek fish kill, however, the algae had never been detected north of the Mason-Dixon Line.

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