EPA pins killing of Dunkard Creek on mine discharges
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A new U.S. Environmental Protection Agency report blames a September bloom of toxic golden algae for wiping out almost all fish, mussels, salamanders and aquatic life on 43 miles of Dunkard Creek along the Pennsylvania-West Virginia border.
The 17-page interim report released Tuesday also tied mine treatment discharges high in total dissolved solids to the creation of salty water conditions that allowed the algae, normally found in brackish waters in Southern and Southwestern states, to thrive and bloom.
Although the EPA report confirms a late September West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection finding fingering the algae, it offers no explanation of how the algae got in the creek and said it will be almost impossible to remove. The only way to control its growth and toxicity and foster stream restoration, the study said, is to limit mine drainage containing high TDS.
Kathy Cosco, a West Virginia DEP spokeswoman, said it's also learned from golden algae experts during two days of meetings this week that it will be difficult to control the algae's growth and spread to other bodies of water.
The EPA report and stream algae survey information were released as the Upper Monongahela River Association and the Greene County Conservation District prepare to hold the first informational meeting on the Dunkard Creek ecological disaster from 4 to 8:30 p.m. today at the Mount Morris Gospel Tabernacle Church.
"People who live in and around the Dunkard Creek watershed want to know what's going on, and this is the first meeting we'll have where the agencies can tell us what they know and we can ask questions," said Betty Wiley, president of the Dunkard Creek Watershed Association. "A good ecological study of the creek needs to be done to figure out what happened and what needs done to restore it."
She said a preliminary estimate by the Greene County Conservation District put the cost of restoring the creek at $30 million.
Paul Ziemkiewicz, director of the West Virginia Water Research Institute at West Virginia University, said analysis of the creek water shows that the bulk of the TDS load in the creek probably came from mine water discharges at Consol Energy's Blacksville No. 2 mine and Loverage Mine, Patriot Coal's Federal No. 2 mine near the creek's headwaters and AMDRI's Shannopin Steel Shaft discharge.
"All of those discharges are treated to remove acidity and metals, but the TDS doesn't change at all," said Mr. Ziemkiewicz, who is scheduled to speak at the meeting.
Water chemistry readings taken at the Blacksville No. 2 mine discharge Sept. 9 show sodium at 5,780 milligrams per liter, chloride at 6,120 milligrams per liter and sulfate at 10,800 milligrams per liter -- all extremely high and the highest found anywhere on the creek that day.
"High TDS levels are good conditions for the growth of the algae bloom, and that's what we had at Dunkard," said Lou Reynolds, an EPA aquatic biologist.
But Joe Cerenzia, a Consol Energy spokesman, said the mining company disputes the conclusion that the algae bloom was linked to the mine discharges.
"It's our belief that a lot was happening in that creek and you can't with any certainty make that final determination," Mr. Cerenzia said. "Experts can't pinpoint what happened and there might have been other factors, like higher nutrients due to runoff."
The EPA also confirmed Tuesday that its recent stream survey found golden algae on Whiteley Creek, the watershed just north of Dunkard Creek in Greene County. No fish kills have been reported on Whiteley Creek, which also has high concentrations of dissolved solids or TDS. The survey found no golden algae in 10 other streams or four sampling areas of the Monongahela River.
The West Virginia DEP has also found high levels of golden algae in Cabin Creek, near Charleston, but has not seen any fish kills.
Robbie Matesic, executive director of economic development for Greene County, said that while the meeting will focus on Dunkard Creek it shouldn't lose sight of the bigger ecological picture.
"Specific to the Dunkard fish kill I'm not going to hold my breath on finding the responsible party for that," Ms. Matesic said. "But I want to know what the agencies are doing to protect water quality in the Mon River basin. We could hit a tipping point at any time now."
Correction/Clarification: (Published Dec. 4, 2009) The concentration figures for the sodium, chloride and sulfate discharges from Consol Energy's Blacksville No. 2 mine discharge in a story about the Dunkard Creek fish kill in yesterday's paper (12-03)should have been expressed in milligrams per liter (mg/l), not micrograms per liter (μg/l or ug/l), as stated in this story as originally published Dec. 3, 2009.
First Published December 3, 2009 12:00 am