Reynolds said that Dunkard should be "OFF LIMITS" for gas companies looking to withdraw millions of gallons used to frack Marcellus wells.
Two weeks after the consent decree was announced, President Obama announced a "Blueprint for a Secure Energy Future" that called for expanding domestic production of natural gas, in addition to renewable fuel and nuclear.
Officially, Consol says it did not cause the fish kill, despite paying millions of dollars in fines and agreeing to build the treatment plant. And EPA says it never assigned blame.
"Our position has always been that our discharges did not cause the golden algae to release toxins into Dunkard Creek," Consol spokeswoman Lynn Seay said in an emailed statement. "We did not admit liability or any of the factual or legal allegations in the consent decrees that resolved [West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection, West Virginia Department of Natural Resources and EPA] claims. According to national experts, there are many factors that could have caused the golden algae to release toxins."
EPA spokesman David Sternberg said the agency has not alleged that mine drainage is the sole cause of the fish kill. He pointed to a previous statement from EPA that said, "The complaint in this matter alleges that discharges of high amounts of chloride and TDS from Consol's Blacksville 2 and Loveridge mining operations in the Monongahela River Basin contributed to severe impairment of aquatic life and conditions favorable for golden algae to thrive in Dunkard Creek."
Reached by phone, Reynolds referred questions to Sternberg.
'What a mess!'
Dunkard Creek drifts back and forth across the West Virginia-Pennsylvania line before it flows into the Monongahela River. Until the 2009 fish kill, the creek was one of the most ecologically diverse waterways in the region, supporting freshwater mussels, mudpuppy salamanders and a wide spectrum of fish species from minnows to 3-foot-long muskies.
Blacksville, about 65 miles south of Pittsburgh, is cut in half by the creek, and also by the West Virginia-Pennsylvania border. The town's cemetery is in the Keystone State. Lined with sycamore trees, the warm, slow waters of the creek have been a popular place for locals to swim in and cast a line in hopes of landing bass.
After the fish kill started in early September 2009, one scientist reported that salamanders that live underwater were seen climbing up on the shore to escape the polluted water. Other fish swam into tributaries to find clean water, "stacking up" at the mouths as they tried to avoid the creek.
But some of the starkest observations came from Reynolds.
"What a mess!" he wrote to colleagues. "Up to our knees in rotting fish, mussels, and mudpuppys is no fun -- it's criminal. Dead mudpuppys look like sock puppets floating in the stream. Mussels die, the meat rots off the shell, then bloats and floats down the stream like a hellish jelly fish. The stench of rotting fish takes a day or more to work out of your scent memory."
Suspicion immediately focused on Marcellus gas drilling, which has boomed in recent years in southwestern Pennsylvania and northern West Virginia. Coal mines have been draining into Dunkard for years without a fish kill like the one in September 2009.
Marcellus Shale drilling creates millions of gallons of salty wastewater, called "brine." Drillers blast several million gallons of chemical-laced water downhole. The water comes back up, mixed with salts and other substances more toxic than the chemicals in the original fluid. The resulting mixture, called "flowback" must be disposed of.
What scientists could say definitively about the fish kill is that a swift increase in "total dissolved solids," or TDS, played a role, creating the conditions for a bloom of the toxic algae. What they couldn't tell is exactly what caused the increase. TDS can be caused by both coal mine drainage and waste brine from Marcellus Shale gas drilling operations.