Coal Tattoo

Dead fish on Dunkard Creek … the saga continues


West Virginia Public Broadcasting reported this morning that the frustration is increasing for residents near Dunkard Creek, along the Pennsylvania border, where an entire stream seems to have been killed by pollution.

It’s understandable … residents want to know what happened. Government investigators initially pointed to a CONSOL Energy mine, then backed off that, and now are saying they haven’t been able to pinpoint an exact cause for the fish kill.

The investigators are frustrated, too.  Scott Mandirola, director of water and waste management for the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection, said in a prepared statement:

We understand the frustration people are feeling, because we feel it, too. That’s why we have large number of people working on this and are working with other agencies to try to determine what could be causing it.

But in trying to report on this incident, I ran into a hurdle yesterday, when the WVDEP said it would not release any of the water sampling data it has gathered from Dunkard Creek.

Tom Aluise, one of WVDEP’s pr folks, told me in an e-mail message that Mike Zeto, the agency’s chief inspector, said the data wasn’t going to be released because it was part of an ongoing investigation.

Now, West Virginia’s public records law allows certain records of ongoing law enforcement investigations to be withheld … but there are limits.  For example, one key state Supreme Court ruling held that such information may be withheld from the public only “to the extent” that  it would “compromise an ongoing law enforcement investigation.”

In this instance, WVDEP officials have described the general findings of their water sampling. Agency spokeswoman Kathy Cosco, for example, told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette:

The elevated levels of TDS and chlorides in the creek indicates oil and gas drilling wastewater.

So what’s the danger in the public and the press knowing the exact numbers?

Despite WVDEP’s secrecy, some data is starting to make it’s way out into the public eye.  A story in the Washington (Pa.) Observer-Reporter mentioned a “preliminary report” by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on the fish kill.  The report, the newspaper said, “indicated a likely source may be Consol Energy’s Blacksvlle No. 2 Mine because of high levels of chloride in its waste water.”

The Observer-Reporter didn’t post this report online, but I’m providing it here. EPA spokeswoman Bonnie Smith would want me to explain that it’s not really a preliminary report, but field notes written by one of EPA’s scientists:

These notes were written to share initial information internally and with our state partners who were then, and are now still, investigating the fish kill in Dunkard Creek.  This memo is very preliminary analysis.

Normally,  memos such as these are internal documents and confidential, but since it was released to a national mining experts at West Virginia University, which is ‘outside the government agencies’  I am also sending it to you – – emphasizing the caveats above.  

The EPA memo includes some of the data that WVDEP didn’t want made public, as well as some data from the Pennsylvania DEP, which interestingly enough provided that same information to me this morning without claiming some secret squirrel “ongoing investigation” stuff.

I’d be interested in any thoughts from Coal Tattoo readers about  Dunkard Creek and about the findings outlined in this EPA memo … stay tuned.