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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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"When the fish kill first happened, we in the research community got a lot of calls," says Jeanne VanBriesen, director of the Center for Water Quality at Carnegie Mellon University. "'Who do you know who knows anything about golden algae?' And we all said the same thing: 'In Pennsylvania why would anyone know anything about golden algae? You have to go to Texas or Florida because it hadn't been seen here.'" Golden algae has now been found in several waterways in Pennsylvania and West Virginia.

How the algae ended up in Dunkard Creek may never be known. Dr. David Hambright, a professor of zoology at the University of Oklahoma, has analyzed samples of golden algae from Dunkard Creek and is investigating the phylogenetic relationships between different strains. "It's never going to be possible to say, okay, it was a bucket of water on the back of a drilling truck from South Texas," he told me. "It was very likely wind borne." Hambright isn't surprised that the algae has been found in Dunkard Creek. "What's surprising," he says, "is that they would find the habitat in which they could live." But they did. In the case of Dunkard Creek, unusually high levels of dissolved solids, nutrient-rich water, and low flows created a kind of perfect storm for the algae's growth.

Early assessments of the kill pointed to fracking wastewater as the source of the river's high levels of Total Dissolved Solids (TDS) -- a rough measure of salts and minerals dissolved in water. "The elevated levels of TDS and chlorides in the creek indicates oil- and gas-drilling wastewater," West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) spokeswoman Kathy Cosco said at the time. However, water samples taken later showed that the dominant ion in Dunkard Creek around the time of the kill was sulfate, which is typical of acid mine drainage, and not chloride (although chloride levels were also abnormally high) commonly found in fracking wastewater.

This led the Pennsylvania and West Virginia environmental agencies to conclude that the high conductivity levels that caused the algal bloom were largely the result of acid mine drainage. "There's no evidence at this point -- nor do I think there will be -- that any of the problems in Dunkard Creek were related to the oil and gas industry," says Pennsylvania DEP Southwest Regional Director Ron Schwartz. "There were a lot of different causes for it, but that wasn't one of them," he says. Scott Mandirola, director of West Virginia DEP's Division of Water and Waste Management, agrees. "The Dunkard issue is mine water," he says. "We investigated this thing from top to bottom and everything we've got points to the mining discharges."

But Consol denies that it is at fault and, as part of its agreement with the EPA, has not admitted liability for the kill. "We do not believe the discharge from our mining operations caused the fish kill," says Joe Cerenzia, PR director for the company. He points out that Consol has operated the mine for 30 years without incident. "It was the algae that did [it]." The company's rationale -- that it had discharged acid mine drainage into Dunkard Creek for 30 years without any problems -- raises more questions than it answers. What, then, changed the river's composition?

In emails obtained by Greenwire under a Freedom of Information Act request, Lou Reynolds, the lead EPA biologist on the case, wrote: "Mine discharges from those deep mines shouldn't differ a lot from the normal mining constituents. Something has changed in the mine pools."

The difference, many local residents speculate, was wastewater from natural gas and coal bed methane extraction. The Marcellus Shale is a sedimentary rock formation that was deposited more than 350 million years ago in a shallow inland sea. These ancient rocks contain chlorides that dissolve during the process of hydraulic fracturing. Abnormally high chloride readings in Dunkard Creek could have come from improper disposal of produced water, residents say.

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