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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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On August 27, 2009, Dan Cincotta, a fisheries biologist with West Virginia's Department of Natural Resources, was conducting a routine inventory of Dunkard Creek, a small river that runs through West Virginia and southwestern Pennsylvania. He was accompanied by a consultant and an environmental engineer from the state's largest coal and gas company, Consol Energy, which operates a coalmine, Blacksville #2, just outside of Wana, West Virginia. Cincotta was supposed to do electro-fish surveys, whereby the fish are temporarily stunned in order to assess populations, and to take a series of conductivity readings -- a basic measure of how much salt is dissolved in water.

When his first reading measured 20,000 micro siemens per centimeter squared (µS/cm), Cincotta thought his equipment was broken; he had never seen readings above 5,000. The Consol consultant took her own reading in the same location but farther from the riverbank. It registered 40,000 µS/cm. Still in disbelief, Cincotta says, "we wandered upstream and found [Consol's mining] discharge. And in the discharge alone, straight out of the pipe our equipment registered over 50,000 µS/cm," roughly the equivalent of seawater. Untreated acid mine discharges typically have conductance values of between 1,000 and 1,500 µS/cm.

The following day, a Friday, Cincotta sent an email to the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) field office in West Virginia alerting them to the extraordinarily high conductivity levels. Then, over the weekend, the reports of dead fish began. During the next month about 22,000 fish washed ashore (some estimates say as many as 65,000 died). At least 14 species of freshwater mussels -- the river's entire population -- were destroyed, wiping out nearly every aquatic species along a 35-mile stretch of Dunkard Creek. "That's the ultimate tragedy," says Frank Jernejcic, a fisheries biologist with the West Virginia Department of Natural Resources. "Fish will come back, we can get the fish back. The mussels are a generational thing."

The scene was horrific: Many of the fish were bleeding from the gills and covered in mucous; mud puppies, a kind of gilled salamander that lives underwater, had tried to escape by crawling onto nearby rocks; three-foot long muskies washed up along the riverbanks. The die-off marked one of the worst ecological disasters in the region's history.

"Unless you have actually seen a fish kill, it's one of the most devastating things that you can imagine," says Verna Presley, a retired teacher who lives on the creek. "Because you don't think of the sound of a stream until it's dead and it's just the eeriest silence that you can imagine. Everything right down to the insects was killed."

A nearly three-month-long investigation by state and federal regulators eventually tied the kill to an invasive algae species known as golden algae (Prymnesium parvum). Yet golden algae offered only a partial explanation for the disaster. It may have been the immediate reason for the kill, but it wasn't the underlying cause. The algae itself cannot survive in freshwater; it thrives only in marine-like environments. Somehow, a freshwater, inland ecosystem had become saline enough for the algae to grow and multiply.

How did this Appalachian stream become so salty? There is no single answer, no smoking gun. The contaminated water might have come from acid mine drainage discharges -- outflow of wastewater from nearby coalmines, which has been occurring for decades. It might also be tied to natural gas drilling in the Marcellus Shale, a relatively new industry in the region. Or perhaps it was a toxic cocktail of both.

The complexity of the disaster has allowed the company most likely responsible for destroying the stream, Consol Energy, to deny wrongdoing. "Working with renowned biologists, Consol Energy determined its operations were not the cause" of the fish kill, the company said in a 2010 press release. Still, Consol recently reached an agreement with the EPA to pay $5.5 million in civil penalties and construct a brine water treatment plant by 2013.

 
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