Official: Dunkard Creek Recovery of Fish 'Slow, But Happening'

Uniontown Herald Standard
8 October 2016
By Steve Ferris,

In the seven years since an algae bloom decimated the fish and other aquatic life in Dunkard Creek, some species have returned in expected numbers while others have not.

“We’re very excited to see the recovery happen. It’s slow, but its happening,” said Chris Urban, the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission’s non-game and endangered species coordinator and natural diversity section chief. Urban helped lead the assessment at the Greene County creek, which was conducted in mid-September.

An estimated 43,000 fish from 10 families, representing 40 species; more than 15,000 mussels, including two on the state endangered list; and 6,500 amphibian mudpuppies were killed in early September 2009 after high concentrations of chloride and total dissolved solids in the discharge from Consol Energy’s Blacksville No. 2 mine in West Virginia created brackish water conditions favorable for a bloom of toxic golden algae.

Urban, one of the first on scene at the creek in 2009 when the kill was discovered, said the numbers may be higher as some of the dead likely decomposed, sank or floated away.

The commission will use the assessment, after it’s completed next year, to determine whether fish, mussels and mudpuppies should be stocked or trapped and transferred into the creek to restore their populations to what they were before the kill.

The fish that survived probably avoided the toxic algae by swimming into tributaries, Urban said. Small game and non-game fish and smallmouth bass comprised most of the fish identifiable in the survey, he said.

Many of the fish collected were too young to positively identify in the field and are being examined using a microscope to confirm their species.

“We expected small fish and bass to recover in five years. Smallmouth bass, the biomass is about what it used to be and the age structure is good — all age classes represented. Young and old. They’re not completely recovered, but it’s decent,” Urban said.

Water quality was not part of the assessment, but the number of fish in the creek indicates the water is good enough to support the fish recovery, he said.

“Based on diversity of fish, it must be decent or we wouldn’t have that recovery to date,” Urban said. More than 30 species of fish were found including some that might not have been there before, such as the pumpkinseed, longnose gar and silverjar minnow.

Conversely, some that were plentiful before 2009, such as the muskie, drum, common carp, flathead catfish, gizzard shad, quillbck and golden and river shiners, were not found or found in small numbers. No mudpuppies were found and they could be among the species the commission traps and transfers some from other waterways.

“They have long lives. We expect them to take a long time to recover,” Urban said. The assessment includes surveying mudpuppy populations in other waters to see if their are enough to use in restocking, he said.

Only two slow growing and long lived mussels were found, but the commission transplanted about 500 mussels from the Allegheny River into the creek after the survey was completed to see how they react to the water quality, Urban said.

“Mussel recovery has the potential to do well and we’ll have to augment with native species. Trap and transfer is one way. We started with a pilot. If they do well, we’ll bring in more in the spring,” Urban said.

Asian clams, an invasive species, were found in abundance during the survey.

An impediment to the fish recovery is a “dead zone” in the creek downstream from Bobtown that blocks fish from migrating upstream from the Monongahela River.

Urban said that stretch of the creek had been impaired by mine drainage for many years before the fish kill. Fish might be able to swim through that section when water levels are high, he said. “You’re not getting that supply of fish from the Mon due to the barrier. It’s a toxic barrier,” Urban said.

At least 51 species of fish, 17 species of mussels including the endangered snuffbox and salamander mussels and six species of amphibians lived in the creek before they died off.

The commission projected recovery rates are three years for small fish, five years for smallmouth bass, eight years for larger fish and 20 years for mussels and mudpuppies. “There’s some positive sings and that’s encouraging. Mussels and mudpuppies will need a lot of work,” Urban said.

The fish kill was spread over 30 miles of the stream in Pennsylvania and West Virginia.

In September 2015, the PFBC reached a $2.5 million civil settlement with Murray Energy, which now owns the mine. Consol sold the Blacksville mine and several other mines to Murray a couple of years ago.

The PFBC sued Consol for damages to state natural resources and lost recreational opportunities for state anglers in 2011 after not being included in a settlement Consol reached with the U.S. Department of Justice, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection.

In that settlement, Consol agreed to pay a $5.5 million civil penalty to settle hundreds of federal Clean Water Act violations at six of its mines in West Virginia, including the Blacksville No. 2 mine. Consol also agreed to compensate West Virginia for the natural resources lost in the West Virginia portion of Dunkard Creek by paying $500,000 to the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources.

Ken Dufalla, president of the Izaak Walton League of America’s Harry Enstrom Chapter in Greene County, said West Virginia did more to help the creek to recover than Pennsylvania did. He said muskies were stocked and clam larvae were implanted in the gills of blue gills in West Virginia while Pennsylvania waited seven years to conduct an assessment.

“From being totally dead I think it’s made a really good recovery due to efforts in West Virginia. Pennsylvania, quite frankly hasn’t done anything,” Dufalla said. Pennsylvania should have started monitoring the recovery and stocking fish years ago, he said.

The commission is holding an informational meeting to discuss the creek recovery at the Mount Morris Sportsmen Club, 366 Watkins Run Road in Mount Morris at 7 p.m. Oct. 13. Commission fisheries biologist Rick Lorson and Urban will be the speakers.