News Analysis: What Killed Dunkard Creek?

January 31, 2014
Orginally published September 30, 2009

Most of the aquatic animals that live in a thirty mile stretch of Dunkard Creek died in 2009. The creek runs from Morgantown, West Virginia into Greene County, Pennsylvania. Regulatory investigators spent months trying to figure out what happened.

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OPEN: Most of the aquatic animals that live in a thirty mile stretch of Dunkard Creek have died. The creek runs from Morgantown, West Virginia into Greene County, Pennsylvania. Regulatory investigators have spent the last three weeks trying to figure out what happened. The Allegheny Front's news analyst Ann Murray is here to talk about what we know so far and what still needs to be uncovered.

M: Dozens of dead fish were discovered in Dunkard Creek the first week of September. Since then a lot more aquatic animals have died. What species of animals have died over the past month?

A: Most of the populations of animals have been wiped out in 30 miles of this 38 mile long stream. Dunkard Creek was biologically diverse. 34 species of animals are dead. Catfish, small mouth bass and muskies have died. So have mussels and salamanders.

M: This has lead to a chain of investigations by the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection, the Pennsylvania DEP and Fish and Boat Commission and the US EPA. What have they discovered? Have they been able to figure out what killed the wildlife in such a big swath of Dunkard Creek?

A: There have been a number of hypotheses but as of last week, the West Virginia DEP, the lead investigator, believes that golden algae is the likely culprit.

M: What is golden algae and why would it kill aquatic animals?

A: This type of algae is non-native. It is usually found in warmer coastal waters that are high in salt or minerals. Golden algae spews out toxins that hurt water breathing animals.

M: How did this kind of algae end up in a fresh water stream?

A: That is the million dollar question. West Virginia DEP initially thought the pollution that caused the kills was from a Consol coal mine in Blacksville, West Virginia that discharged mine water into the stream. The agency made that connection because of the chlorides and Total Dissolved Solids, which are various kinds of salts, found in Dunkard Creek. Chlorides and

M: Is the mine continuing to discharge in to Dunkard?

A: No, Consul has agreed to shut off their discharge.

M: Was this mine the source of the pollution that caused the algae?

A: Unknown right now because fish continued to die above the mining operation in Blacksville. Another theory was discharge of wastewater from a gas drilling operation. High chloride levels and other salts would also be found in this kind of wastewater. But the West Virginia DEP now contends that trucks that were spotted near the Creek were taking water out of the stream not dumping wastewater into it.

M: Are there other ways that algae could get into the stream?

A: The Washington Observer Reporter reports the head of West Virginias Department of Environmental Protection says algae could have been transported by animals or by people who have fished in affected areas in other states. Or the conditions could have been such that it grew there on its own.

M: So these agencies still dont really know for sure how the algae got into Dunkard Creek?

A: Right. I spoke with PA DEP spokesperson Helen Humphries and she said that this is a very serious loss of aquatic life and the agencies are trying to be careful in their investigation.

M: Have there been any indications that there were problems with Dunkard Creek before this big fish-kill?

A: Yes. On the Pennsylvania side of the creek, the state Department of Environmental Protection had determined through water surveys in October and November 2008 that Dunkard did not meet standards for Total Dissolved Solids. According to the Charleston Gazette, since 2002, the West Virginia DEP has listed Dunkard Creek and several tributaries as biologically impaired. At least two major coal discharges have consistently violated water quality limits -- sometimes discharging five or six times the legal standards --- for years.

M: How have environmental groups responded?

A: Environmental groups say that agencies should have been on top of these problems before the fish-kill. Clean Water Action is also trying to stop a proposed gas wastewater treatment plant proposed by Greenearth Wastewater Processing that would discharge into Dunkard Creek. The proposal is at the draft permit stage with Pennsylvaniaís DEP. Myron Arnowitt with Clean Water Action Pittsburgh says thereís very little information about how the proposed plant would treat for salt and chlorides. His group says DEP canít allow a plant that would contribute any chlorides or Total Dissolved Solids to an already impaired creek.

M: Thanks, Ann.

A: Sure Matthew.