Dunkard Creek Recovers from 2009 Fish Kill

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
15 October 2016
By Don Hopey

MOUNT MORRIS, Pa. — Smallmouth bass are thriving in Dunkard Creek seven years after one of the largest fish kills in the history of the state. Musky, walleye and sauger populations are starting to fin in the right direction too.

But a state Fish and Boat Commission stream assessment also found that native rock bass, carp, freshwater clams and mudpuppies — a kind of giant salamander with gills — have failed to repopulate a 37-mile-long segment of the creek that snakes along the Mason-Dixon Line separating West Virginia and the southwest corner of Pennsylvania.

That uneven recovery of ecologically important species is a sign that water quality problems remain in what was one of Western Pennsylvania’s most species-diverse creeks, said Rick Lorson, the commission’s area fisheries manager.

“The smallmouth bass numbers are a good sign, but the rock bass populations are still in decline and have not recovered. That’s a red flag that may indicate they are pollution intolerant,” Mr. Lorson said Thursday during a meeting at the Mount Morris Sportsmen Club to review the study findings.

“There are some issues at the Dana Mine discharge and we’ll want to investigate its impact on the creek,” he said. “If those issues are chronic, it impacts the fish population.”

The creek’s aquatic life was smothered in September 2009 when salty pollutants discharged from Consol Energy’s Blacksville No. 2 mine spawned a toxic bloom of golden algae. The algae killed approximately 43,000 fish, more than 15,000 freshwater mussels and 6,000 mudpuppies, according to commission estimates.

Chris Urban, chief of the commission’s Natural Diversity Section, which deals with “critters you don’t hook or cook,” said that while the creek is “on a trajectory towards recovery,” the stream survey found no mudpuppies and none of the 14 species of freshwater mollusks that inhabited the creek seven years ago.

He said a $2.5 million damage settlement reached last year with Murray Energy Corp., which bought the Blacksville mine from Consol, will provide money for a planned restocking of mudpuppies and mollusks. Mr. Lorson said the commission will also conduct a two-year rock bass stocking program in an attempt to help that species recolonize the creek.

“I think this is encouraging overall,” said Andy Liebhold, president of Friends of Dunkard Creek, a grassroots creek conservation group. “A lot of fisheries are coming back, although it’s depressing about the mollusks. My fear is that they may never come back. They’re not charismatic but ecologically, they’re kind of important.”

Although a desalinization plant built at Blacksville is improving water quality in the upper stretches of the creek, Mr. Lorson warned that given the wrong stream conditions — low stream flow and high “conductivity” pollution from the Dana Mine discharge in a lower stretch of the creek — another fish kill could occur.

“It needs to be looked at,” he said, “and this assessment data will allow us to do that, along with the state Department of Environmental Protection and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.”

Don Hopey: dhopey@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1983, or on Twitter @donhopey