W.Va.-Pa. ‘Stream is Healing’

Pittsburgh Tribune-Review
12 July 13
By Timothy Puko

MANNINGTON, W.Va. — Terri Davin can see minnows when she wades into Dunkard Creek. She can't see much more than that in water muddied by rain, but kingfishers and blue herons flying overhead tell her there's enough life in the water for the birds to feed.

That's a lot different from the still, dank stench of the creek four years ago. Everything over a 30-mile stretch along the West Virginia-Pennsylvania border suddenly died in September 2009. Nearly all fish species have returned since that unprecedented fish kill, according to West Virginia researchers.

Residents, environmentalists and state officials hope they have a lasting success story.

“The stream is healing,” said Terri Davin, president of Greene County Watershed Alliance. But toxic algae that killed everything remains, dormant, she said. “What's important is to never create the conditions that will make it rear its ugly head again.”

As part of a legal settlement with West Virginia, Cecil-based Consol Energy Inc. just finished a $200 million project to help ensure that. Company officials held a ceremony on Thursday with Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin to dedicate its centerpiece, a $130 million water treatment plant in Marion County.

The company paid a $5 million fine for the fish kill, though it did not acknowledge guilt, and agreed to build the plant that will take drainage from three Consol mines, including Blacksville No. 2 near Dunkard Creek about 30 miles away, and remove the type of pollution that allowed the algae to bloom.

Company officials believe the plant can help an entire region with problems from total dissolved solids, a catchall term for salts and other mild water pollutants. Industrial wastewater laden with these minerals often gets dumped back into streams and rivers, which can turn them into saltwater and harm plants and animals.

The treatment plant is one of the first of its kind to remove all that, said Nicholas J. DeIuliis, president of Consol. It costs about $14 million a year to run, but officials plan to try to make millions of dollars by selling purified water to power plants, mines and gas drilling sites, they said.

Water can be as important to the company as coal and natural gas, its two main products, DeIuliis said.

“We've taken something that was viewed as a negative, a headache, and we're making a positive out of it,” he said. “I think it will be a really big turning point, not just for our company, but for the entire region.”

Consol's effort to limit total dissolved solid discharges have played a big role in the creek's revival, researchers and creek advocates said. They've been low all year, despite unusually dry conditions, said Paul Ziemkiewicz, director of the West Virginia Water Research Institute.

“That plant is about as impressive as anything I've seen,” said Frank Jernejcic, a regional fisheries biologist for the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources. “When you look at the amount of money that it's costing them to do it, it's like, ‘My, my, my, that's amazing.' ”

Jernejcic's sampling found a nearly full return of the 35 to 40 fish species Dunkard Creek had before the kill, a much faster recovery than anyone expected, he said. That happened naturally, starting with the minnows that unexpectedly swam several miles into Dunkard Creek from tributaries, he said.

Fish are about a foot in length, though, compared to many that were more than 40 inches long when found dead four years ago, said Betty Wiley, who leads the Dunkard Creek Watershed Association. The state is trying to reintroduce mollusks. The mollusks played a big role as natural filters and were part of what made the creek so unique and diverse, said Andrew Liebhold, a biologist who lives in Perry, Greene County.

Despite Consol's work, there are mines downstream that raise the same concerns about dissolved solids, advocates said. It's a rapid but fragile recovery, they said.

“It's a thing that has to be watched constantly,” said Wiley, 71, of Westover, near Morgantown. “You can never let down your guard.”

Timothy Puko is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7991 or tpuko@tribweb.com.