BLACKSVILLE, W.Va. -- Who killed Dunkard Creek?
Was it coal miners whose runoff wiped out aquatic life in the stream where locals have long fished and picnicked? Or was it Marcellus Shale drillers and the briny discharge from their wells that created a toxic algae bloom that left a miles-long trail of rotting fish along the West Virginia-Pennsylvania state line?
Two years after Dunkard Creek suffered one of the worst fish kills ever in West Virginia or Pennsylvania, the reason for the chemical changes that spawned it remain a mystery.
U.S. EPA has ended its investigation and pointed the finger at a local coal mine, Blacksville No. 2, and entered a multimillion-dollar settlement with the owner, Consol Energy Inc.
But the lead EPA biologist on the case has challenged that idea, saying that the most likely explanation for the fish kill involves the environmental effects of Marcellus Shale drilling.
Emails obtained by Greenwire through a Freedom of Information Act request show EPA biologist Lou Reynolds telling colleagues that coal mine drainage is unlikely to be the sole culprit.
"Something has changed in the mine pools," Reynolds wrote in a November 2009 email. The change, he said, could have come from miners digging deeper into a coal seam.
But it could also be the case, he said, that "Mining companies are disposing of [coalbed methane] and Marcellus water in the mine pool," or "Mining companies are taking [coalbed methane] and Marcellus water into their treatment ponds.
"One or any combinations of the above might be happening," Reynolds wrote.
Industry officials have pointed to a report authored by Reynolds, a Wheeling, W.Va.-based member of the EPA's regional freshwater biology team, to refute claims that drilling waste caused the fish kill. The most prominent of those claims came in the anti-drilling documentary "Gasland" (Greenwire, Feb. 24).
Though gas drilling was viewed as a likely culprit early on, EPA scientists never found solid proof that wastewater from the hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking," of gas wells caused a fish kill on Dunkard Creek.
A year later when the fish kill did not repeat itself, Reynolds suggested to a colleague that one possible reason is "because this year they aren't dumping massive amounts of frac water into Dunkard. That is unsubstantiated -- but plausible."
Last November, Reynolds wrote to an EPA public affairs officer that "I am not so sure" that mining could account for both of the major chemical disturbances that preceded the fish kill.
The agency entered into an agreement in March with Consol Energy, which operates several local coal mines and manages drainage from the active and closed mines. The company agreed to pay $6 million in fines to settle water pollution allegations that included the Dunkard Creek fish kill. Consol made no admission of liability, but it agreed to spend up to $200 million on a water treatment plant (E&ENews PM, March 14).
A few days before the consent agreement was signed and announced this year, Reynolds wrote to a colleague that Marcellus operations on the creek are the most likely way for the fish-killing "golden algae" to spread.
"There is water that is removed from these streams for use in Marcellus fracking," he wrote. "There is always some amount of water that gets left in the tank and hoses that then gets put into other streams. By far, this is the most likely way that GA [golden algae] will be moved around."