Conductivity: A looming problem for coal, WVDEP

September 28, 2009 by Ken Ward Jr.


A mine discharge along Dunkard Creek along the West Virginia-Pennsylvania border. Photo from Dunkard Creek Watershed Association.

My lengthy story in your Sunday Gazette-Mail tried to explain some of underlying water pollution problems that may have helped lead to the massive fish kill that has devastated Dunkard Creek up in North-Central West Virginia.

But I’m afraid it only scratched the surface of a huge, looming problem for the coal industry and for the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection.

It’s called conductivity, and it’s a measure of how well a stream or creek conducts an electrical charge. But it is also an indicator of the amount of dissolved solids — chlorides, sulfates and the like — that are in water. These things can kill aquatic life.

And across the coal-mining counties of West Virginia, they are a big problem that WVDEP hasn’t even begun to try to deal with in any comprehensive way.

In Sunday’s story, I mentioned a letter that Derek Teaney, a lawyer with the Appalachian Center for the Economy and the Environment, had sent to WVDEP to comment on the agency’s plan for cleaning up the pollution problems in Dunkard Creek. Among other things, Derek pointed out that WVDEP knows that Dunkard Creek has a conductivity problem, but did not propose any fix for that problem.

Derek also pointed out that WVDEP has done exactly the same thing when writing stream cleanup plans for  other watersheds: The Upper Kanawha, the Gauley and the Coal.  In each case, WVDEP officials said they lacked enough information to include any fix for conductivity problems in the cleanup plans, called Total Maximum Daily Loads, or TMDLs.

According to Derek’s letter, written on behalf of the Sierra Club and the West Virginia Rivers Coalition, said:

WVDEP has still neither developed a TMDL for these streams nor created a plan to do so. WVDEP may not continue to delay the development of ionic toxicity TMDLs indefinitely or for unsupported reasons.

In fact, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has pointed to elevated conductivity downstream from valley fills in objecting to the issuance of new mountaintop removal mining permits, and explained:

“Recent data and analysis have revealed that downstream water quality impacts have not been adequately addressed by the permit, especially in light of clear evidence that effluent from valley fill sedimentation ponds is very likely to elevate conductivity and thus negatively affect healthy aquatic communities.”

EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson herself mentioned this problem in an interview with National Public Radio:

And it is true that much of the science shows that when you have a lot of, when you start to see a preponderance of stream miles filled in, you start to see higher conductivity levels, which is indicative of higher suspended solids, which starts to effect the aquatic ecosystems sort of from the bottom up.  And so activists and people who live in the area have raised concerns about why this practice had been allowed to continue.

And in fact, WVDEP outlined its own concerns about this problem in its most recent statewide water quality monitoring report, finalized last year:

[A]ll of the biologically impaired streams with “mining” identified as the source have undergone stressor identification in a TMDL development process. For each stream, the stressor identification process has identified ionic toxicity as a significant stressor … In each case, water quality data indicates elevated conductivity and sulfates contributed by mining discharges. Additionally, land use in affected watersheds is overwhelmingly dominated by mining activities.

As with the pollution problems on Dunkard Creek that pre-dated this month’s terrible fish kill, WVDEP knows about this issue … stay tuned to see what, if anything, the agency decides to do about it.

21 Responses to “Conductivity: A looming problem for coal, WVDEP”

  1. scott 14 says:

    Ken, the link to the gauley dosent work. I was wandering what part of the gauley was the report talking about. Is it in Richwood, above or below Summersville Lake, above or below Peters Creek. The major surface mining operations are located below Peters creek. If conductivity is high above summersville lake what could be causing it since no major valley fills are located above summersville lake.

  2. McLovin says:

    I believe the Gauley report refers mainly to the sections below the Lake that have mining influences (i.e., Twentymile, Rich, Peters, with Muddlety being the exception).

    The heart of the problem is that there is no water quality criterion for conductivity (or TDS or Sulfates or Chlorides) currently established. There is a general unwillingness by the DEP leadership (and this goes back long before Huffman) to establish one (at least until now) because of the amount of fight that industry will put up against it. You cannot create TMDLs (or as Ken puts it ” stream cleanup plans”) for something without this criterion driving the process.

  3. Ken Ward Jr. says:

    scott 14,

    That link works fine for me … you might give it a moment, because it’s a big file:

    For your information, the streams listed as biologically impaired because of ionic stress were:

    Scrabble Creek
    Left Fork of Scrabble Creek
    Boardtree Branch
    Sugar Camp Branch
    Stillhouse Branch
    Robinson Fork.


  4. Ken Ward Jr. says:


    By way of follow-up, WVDEP issued this statement today:
    The West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection now believes a golden algae bloom is linked to a large fish kill on Dunkard Creek, in northern West Virginia and southwestern Pennsylvania. DEP staff members investigating the incident narrowed down the causes of the fish kill after consulting with algae experts from West Virginia University, North Carolina and Texas.

    The algae found in Dunkard Creek has been tentatively identified as Prymnesium parvum, commonly called golden algae, which occurs worldwide, but primarily in coastal waters that have higher salt or mineral content. The algae produces toxins that can affect gill-breathing organisms and the most visible result of a fish kill caused by golden alga is dead and dying fish and mussels of all species and sizes.

    The characteristics of the fish kill are almost identical to what is seen in other parts of the country that also have had golden algae kills.

    “Narrowing down the cause will allow us and anyone who may be found to be responsible to find a solution, ” said Cabinet Secretary Randy Huffman. “Some members of our investigation team are now turning their attention to finding ways to minimize or eliminate the algae bloom. We are also evaluating what can be done to prevent this from happening in the future, in Dunkard and other watersheds.”

    All available information indicates that golden algae is not known to cause human health problems, and no immediate harmful effects have been recorded in mammals and birds observed eating dead and dying fish and drinking the water in areas with golden algae.

    To avoid the possibility of spreading the algae, the DEP requests that all entities refrain from transporting water from Dunkard Creek to other watersheds.

    “While it appears that saline- and mineral-rich environments are conducive to the growth of the golden algae in Dunkard Creek, we aren’t sure if the algae was introduced into the creek or if it just proliferated due to favorable conditions,” Huffman said. “It could have been transplanted in a number of ways, including waterfowl, water transport or even waders of fishermen who have fished in affected waters in other states.”

    While the DEP understands that it may be difficult to determine how the algae came to be in Dunkard Creek, the agency acknowledges the severity of the situation and is committed to continue to work with the other involved agencies to determine the extent of damage and what can be done to control the problem.

  5. rwc says:

    imagine that ,the blame was in the wrong direction.looks like there are apologies to be made by those who were quick to judge.

  6. Janet says:

    I wonder what entity is responsible for the ‘favorable conditions’ that caused the algae to proliferate. Don’t be so quick to discount the role of extractive industries. Dunkard Creek hasn’t always been like that, otherwise, wouldn’t there have been previous fish kills?

  7. Jason Robinson says:

    Janet if WVDEP are blaming the algae bloom, and the algae bloom is a consequence the salinity and mineral content, and the salinity and mineral content are a direct result of frack water discharge, then the extraction industries are still to blame.

    and I don’t see which direction rwc would like to see the blame being turned? blame doesn’t get you very far. how can this stream be “restored”? Answer: It can’t. One more “sacrifice” in a “sacrifice zone”.

  8. Vernon says:

    As I’m understanding this, the fish (and everything else) kill was caused by an algae bloom which was enabled by the high dissolved solids allowed by the WV DEP for years, and which they intended to allow until 2013, at least. For some reason I can’t get on the DEP website right now to look at their TMDL documents, but when they put out the Coal River TMDL for comment and had hearings, the introduction had outdated info on percent of the watershed that was “mining or barren.” It was on about page 3 of their intro. Very misleading. They showed only about 3%, and when asked about it they said it was from satellite modeling data from the 90’s. They were so married to that modeling that they left it there, even though their appendices showed around 14% of the watershed was “mining or barren.”

  9. scott 14 says:

    Thanks for the info Ken. Those streams you mention, if they raise the level of conductivity in the gauley someone is mistaken twentymile creek for the gauley. All these are tributarys of twentymile creek. You couldnt float a piece of styrofoam in them in the middle of spring thaw, even before there was a valley fill in them. Maybe the DEP should call the lower gauley conductive because there isnt 3 miles of river left when twentymile creek dumps into the gauley at dixey. Im sorry, i dont doubt that some harm is done to water sheds by mining activity. In this case it seems that we are making a mountian out of a mole hill. Full disclosure I work at one of the mine sites in this watershed.

  10. Lewis Baker says:

    In the data Ken linked the other day for MTR / valley fills that EPA wants to study, there was a single conductivity value for each site. Some of the sites had very high conductivity numbers, maybe ten times most other mined sites, and theses sites tended to be in KY and OH. It may be there is a regional trend to conductivity problems from mines, but it would probably be best to have a way to compare multiple conductivity values from one site to those at another site, as conductivity tends to change with flow volume.

    Conductivity – what is normal? This measure of water quality changes as concentrations of various dissolved ions change, from time to time in a given stream, and from stream to stream. In unmined areas the conductivity tends to increase for a stream as its flow decreases. This is due to stream flow being a blend of runoff, shallow groundwater and deeper groundwater.

    Conductivity after a storm will partly reflect the increased turbidity, but as the water clears the conductivity should drop. During dry periods conductivity will increase as shallow groundwater recharge declines. The shallow groundwater is usually relatively fresh compared to deeper groundwater. The deeper groundwater, which provides a greater portion of the diminished flow in dry periods, will tend to carry higher ion concentrations and conductivity.

    Mined areas generally have relatively high turbidity and ion content in runoff and groundwater (shallow or deep) than undisturbed areas, and hence higher conductivity.

    Still, conductivity in both mined and unmined areas changes with volume of flow. So the best way to determine when conductivity is no longer “normal” may be to plot graphs of conductivity versus flow for unmined streams to use as baselines of “normal”, and then compare waters from mined areas to conductivity plots of unmined streams nearby.

    The value for stream flow at each site could be normalized to its own median flow, then conductivity from various sites could be plotted on the same graph as “normalized” to flow. Healthy streams would plot as relatively low conductivity at various flow values, stressed streams at higher conductivities, and dead streams at some higher conductivity.

    A single stream might shift from stressed to dead as its conductivity increased from elevated to too high, as stream flow diminishes in dry weather. This may be part of the problem at Dunkard creek. Plots of conductivity normalized against flow could be kept for a single stream, and new data points plotted on it as a means to observe a trend away from recent “normal” for that particular stream. A trend away from the previous data could be negative (i.e. Dunkard Creek), or it could be positive (i.e. a mined stream trending toward compliance, returning to health).

  11. stoneflychick says:

    Lewis, you’re right about conductivity being partially flow dependent. Look closer at EPA website, the single cond. measure was based on mean cond. over many months and over multiple streams proposed to be impacted by mine project, or, in another separate indicator, they used the median value in the HUC12 to indicate the water quality of the whole watershed where the mine is going. It’s just an indicator; one of many different kinds of indicators EPA is looking at according to their website. DEP’s Gauley report points to cond values >2000, background is less than 100. Golden algae might just bloom in Twentymile Creek and kill fish all the way to Gauley Bridge. Won’t that smell nice?

  12. Vernon says:

    Thanks SSF, the appendices in the TMDL document had more current data, based on permits or other methodology, but the intro presented the old data as if it were current. Whether intentional or not, DEP gave the impression that mining impact was far less than it actually is. Most folks aren’t going to go to the appendices and do the math to find that the intro is at least 300% off. For those who watch the DEP a lot, it sure doesn’t help their credibility.

  13. DaisyMay says:


    Just to be clear, all of those streams are not tributaries of Twentymile. Scrabble Creek and Left Fork of Scrabble Creek are direct tributaries of the Gauley at Gauley Bridge. Twentymile dumps into the Gauley at Belva, not Dixie. Also, Peters Creek dumps into the Gauley within the Gauley River National Recreation Area and takes the brunt of all of the outlets from Massey’s mines on Line Creek, Jerrys Fork, Jones Branch, & Hutchinson Branch — Let’s not forget about Camp Fork which drains directly into the Summersville Lake. In other words, it goes a little bit farther than just Twentymile. Like Dunkard Creek, you might as well forget about Twentymile. It will never come back.

  14. hollergirl says:

    Janet is right about the blame for what caused the “favorable conditions” in Dunkard Creek but regardless there is still the fact that WV DEP is still allowing a mining company to pollute well above it’s limits. Why?
    DEP still refuses to require industry to comply with selenium limits. Why? No wonder DEP is under fire.

  15. Why says:

    ken- is there a reason that some of my posts have been pulled off???

    Stinking Spam Filter (aka McLovin & Mayflyguy) BTW, I have all of these different handles due to consistent problems with trying to post!!!!

  16. Ken Ward Jr. says:

    Why —

    As regular readers know, we’ve had some problems the past few weeks with our spam filters, caused by some IT changes here at the Gazette. We’re hoping to get them cleared up.

    In the meantime, you can email me at from an address I can respond to, and let me know what posts you’re inquiring about and I’ll check into it.

    Also — please do not use multiple login names — it makes your spam filter problems worse.

    Sorry for the inconvenience. We’re hoping to get it resolved.


  17. […] discussed before the broader implications of the fish-kill disaster on Dunkard Creek in Northern West Virginia, and how it highlights the dangers of the Department of Environmental […]

  18. […] the EPA report didn’t really make clear that the TMDL does nothing about the central causes of the fish kill — the high conductivity in the stream, an indication of high dissolved solids such as […]

  19. […] Well, Randy explained that he was just on a conference call earlier this week with environmental protection officials from 17 other states. They were all worried because of reports out of EPA Region 4 (which includes Kentucky and Tennessee) about a federal report — expected out soon — that describes what the current science says about the levels of water conductivity or salinity that are causing serious damage to aquatic life. […]

  20. […] setting up a much more rigorous mandate that coal operators and state mining regulators face up to this looming and long-ignored problem. But the new EPA guidance also addresses a host of other issues, from water quality monitoring to […]

  21. […] Well, how about any suggestion from Rep. Rahall that perhaps the Environmental Protection Agency should be looking at what the impacts of increased conductivity is on Appalachian headwaters streams and water quality downstr… […]

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