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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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Several months before the fish kill, the EPA was in the process of drafting a consent order to address Consol's security violations at the injection well. But after the fish die-off the company decided to plug and abandon the well. It was still fined the maximum penalty of $157,000 for failing to secure the site, but the underground injection well was never officially linked to the kill.

Dan Cincotta, the biologist who first recorded unusually high conductivity readings on Dunkard Creek, says that salinity levels in rivers and streams in Pennsylvania and West Virginia are a growing concern. Over the last 30 years he's sampled thousands of streams and conducted several statewide surveys. "All the streams around are much higher in conductivity than they used to be," he says. Shale gas extraction will likely just add to the problem. Last year the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia released preliminary data from one of the few studies to look at the impact of shale gas drilling on rivers and streams. They found that TDS levels were significantly higher and biodiversity indicators reduced in streams exposed to high-density gas drilling. At the same time, billions of gallons of acid mine drainage must be disposed of annually.

"We're at the assimilative capacity of the river," says David Argent, a fisheries biologist at the California University of Pennsylvania who has conducted surveys on the Monongahela. "In other words, you can't dilute any more in the Monongahela. It doesn't matter what it is -- if it's Marcellus, if it's mining, if it's sewage, if it's treated sewage, if it's untreated sewage, we're there. And I think it's just a matter of what is it that's going to tip the scale now and push us over the edge."

In 2008, TDS levels on the Monongahela were twice as high as the historical maximum since record keeping began in the 1960s, including a period during which the river supported little or no aquatic life. That summer, during a period of low flows, there were reports of foul smelling drinking water and malfunctioning dishwashers in a residential neighborhood outside of Pittsburgh. The DEP issued an advisory warning suggesting that residents drink bottled water (the Monongahela is a source of drinking water for about one million people) and later determined that nine sewage treatment plants were discharging large volumes of Marcellus Shale-produced water into the river. An internal EPA memo obtained by Greenwire described the incident as "one of the largest failures in US history to supply clean drinking water to the public."

One year later, the high TDS and chloride levels that led to the Dunkard Creek fish kill were detected on the Monongahela, more than 40 miles downstream, in Elizabeth, PA. "I think that was kind of the alarm cry that we needed," Argent says. "Because I think at that point people really started to question, you know, what's going on with the water."


Adam Federman, a Middlebury Fellow in Environmental Journalism, has written for The Nation, Columbia Journalism Review, Gastronomica, Adirondack Life, and other publications.

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