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."

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.

Another scientist's analysis of the creek water indicated most of the TDS probably came from discharges at the Blacksville No. 2 mine and two other mines. The West Virginia Water Research Institute has been sampling water about 20 miles downstream from the fish kill since shortly before the incident. It showed high levels of TDS associated with mine water, containing sulfates, and low levels of TDS associated with gas waste, dominated by chlorides.

"The water signature is dominated by sulfates," said Paul Ziemkiewicz, the director of the National Research Center for Coal & Energy at West Virginia University.

EPA took early readings upstream of the fish kill that showed a high concentration of gas-associated TDS, but Ziemkiewicz said it was so diluted by the time it reached the WRI monitoring station that it barely registered.

'Glaring weakness'
Whether from coal mining or gas drilling, Reynolds got resistance from Consol on the idea of new regulations for TDS. After a meeting with Consol officials and West Virginia environmental officials, Reynolds expressed frustration.

"It would be like the surgeon general inviting Marlboro to the table to lead a discussion on smoking as a cause of cancer," he wrote. "I learned nothing new in two days except how hard Consol will fight to keep TDS from being regulated."

He later sent "toned down" comments to meeting organizers.

EPA officials consciously shied away from naming any particular culprit early on, particularly natural gas. Instead, they explained that high TDS had caused an algae bloom, without going into what caused the TDS spike or the bloom.

Emails show that naming a culprit for the fish kill was a sensitive subject. One staffer called the omission of a reason in an EPA news release a "glaring weakness." But an agency lawyer said the wording needed to be vague.

"Sorry, David, but straight assertions on how the TDS got there gets closer and closer to our enforcement action, on which we are still working," EPA attorney Nina Rivera said in a reply. "We can say that we are looking at the discharges into the creek, but I'm not ready to point fingers."

Reynolds' November 2009 report that obliquely cited coal mine drainage was the last public statement on the Dunkard Creek fish kill before the settlement in March.

In March, Pennsylvania authorities arrested a local waste hauler, Allan Shipman, whose trucks were contracted to dispose of flowback brine from gas companies.

The allegations against Shipman, laid out in a grand jury presentment, say he improperly disposed of brine in tributaries of Dunkard Creek. But the specifics of the charges do not include anything that occurred upstream of the fish kill.

Click here to see the EPA emails.

Reprinted from Greenwire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC., 202-628-6500