The West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection and the state Division of Natural Resources have entered into a proposed settlement with CONSOL Energy in which the company has agreed to pay $500,000 for natural resources damages in Dunkard Creek in Monongalia County.
The $500,000 settlement is in addition to a $5.5 million civil penalty the company will pay and nearly $200 million the company will spend on the construction of an advanced water treatment plant to address high levels of chlorides discharged from four of its underground mines in northern West Virginia. Both the civil penalty and the water treatment plant are part of a settlement the company entered into with the U.S. Department of Justice, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the WVDEP.
In September 2009, thousands of fish, mussels and amphibians were killed in Dunkard Creek because of toxins produced by Golden Algae that had begun blooming in the stream. Golden Algae, which is not native to West Virginia’s fresh water streams, is more commonly found in brackish or salty water bodies. Although it was never determined how the Golden Algae was introduced into Dunkard Creek, research indicated that nutrients and high levels of chlorides and dissolved solids can contribute to its growth.
“In the days immediately following the fish kill in Dunkard Creek, CONSOL voluntarily worked with the DEP and the EPA to proactively manage their mining operations to minimize the risk of another algae outbreak while at the same time keeping their miners working,” said DEP Cabinet Secretary Randy Huffman.
With requirements put in place by the WVDEP to reduce the amount of chlorides and total dissolved solids (TDS) in Dunkard Creek, the Monongalia County stream continues to avoid dangerous algae blooms that can threaten aquatic life.
Additionally, the state DNR reports that fish are returning to Dunkard Creek following the massive kill. A fish survey conducted at one station on Dunkard Creek a month following the September 2009 fish kill revealed only four species of fish. By July 2010, sampling revealed 29 species at that same station. In 2005, the same location had 33 species.
On Dec. 18, 2009, the WVDEP issued the first of two orders to CONSOL that addressed the company’s mine water management in relation to CONSOL pumping water from its underground mining operations into Dunkard Creek; established Golden Algae monitoring requirements for CONSOL; called for the company to monitor for chlorides, TDS, selenium and specific conductance at various outlets on Dunkard Creek; and set chloride and specific conductance levels for CONSOL discharges.
Patrick Campbell, of the WVDEP’s Division of Water and Waste Management, said Dunkard Creek has been free of Golden Algae since January 2010.
“Multiple locations on Dunkard Creek have been monitored weekly by the company and periodically by us (WVDEP) since January and nothing has turned up,” Campbell said. “We also sampled 40 other locations around the state last summer and didn’t find Golden Algae, which I think is significant. As far as we can tell right now, this was isolated to Dunkard Creek.”
Still, Campbell said the WVDEP would likely monitor for Golden Algae “for the next four or five years or until we get some confidence level that this was an isolated event.”
Although it will likely take decades for the mussel population to return, DNR biologists found that fish such as minnows, darters and suckers are returning to Dunkard Creek from tributaries and some reproduction is occurring.
“This is a reflection that water quality has improved and is being maintained,” Campbell said.
Mining is critical to our state’s economy, but clean water is paramount. The cooperative efforts by all involved are protecting both. According to CONSOL, not one job will be lost, but the plan will result in clean water.