Coal Tattoo

Dunkard Creek probe focused on algae


Photo courtesy WVDEP

Investigators from the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection have narrowed the focus of their probe of that huge fish kill on Dunkard  Creek to a non-native algae — called Golden-Brown Algae.

During interviews this evening, WVDEP officials and the folks at CONSOL Energy Inc. both pointed to this algae as perhaps the central culprit in actually killing thousands of Dunkard Creek fish, mussels, salamanders and other aquatic life. The algae apparently releases some sort of toxin that damages gills, eventually killing aquatic life and making it appear that a lack of dissolved oxygen was to blame, officials told me.

But,  that doesn’t mean that government investigators have ruled out coal-mining discharges in the area as playing a role.

Scott Mandirola, director of the WVDEP Division of Water and Waste Management, told me that outside experts advised his agency that the algae in question would be more likely to occur in water with a higher salt content. And, we know from yesterday’s excellent West Virginia Public Broadcasting story  that CONSOL operations on Dunkard Creek have exceeded state standards for chloride salt discharges for years. Asked about Dunkard Creek’s chloride problems, and any possible relation to the fish kill, Mandirola said:

We know there are some of these issues on Dunkard Creek, and those are probably contributing factors.

Tom Hoffman, a spokesman for CONSOL, told me about the same thing. Hoffman said investigators still need to figure out exactly how the algae got into the stream, and what factors present in the creek helped it grow:

We’re now fairly certain that the fish are being killed by this particular algae. What we don’t know yet is where did this algae come from and what are the conditions that made this bloom grow the way it has grown. Everybody wants to point at our discharge, but it is readily apparent that there are a host of issues. 

In another update, I’m posting here a spreadsheet file of WVDEP’s water sampling data collected during the Dunkard Creek investigation. You may recall that WVDEP previously refused to release this to the public.  Agency spokeswoman Kathy Cosco provided it a little while ago, with this e-mail note:

While the DEP is reticent, as a matter of ordinary prudence, to routinely disclose investigatory information it obtains that may result in civil penalties or even criminal charges against an environmental offender, the agency recognizes that there is substantial public interest in these particular materials, and that their disclosure appears to pose only a minimal risk to the ongoing investigation and any eventual prosecution.

As that Public Broadcasting piece reported:

Since at least 2002, mining company Consol Energy has been releasing chloride into Dunkard Creek at higher levels than state standards allow. But the West Virginia DEP has repeatedly given the company extra time to comply.

Scientists looking at a massive fish kill on Dunkard Creek on the West Virginia-Pennsylvania border are zeroing in on extremely high levels of chloride, a chemical compound.

In September 2002, DEP officials found that Consol was violating water quality standards by releasing high levels of chloride into streams at several sites, including two along Dunkard Creek.

But three times – in 2004, 2007 and 2008 – the DEP issued compliance orders giving Consol additional time to meet these standards.

And it’s important to note that Dunkard Creek has been listed as biologically impaired for a number of years, in part because of high conductivity — the ability of the water to conduct electricity — linked to chloride discharges.