Part of the Knowing Our Waters Project
By Kirk Jalbert, Manager of Community-Based Research and Engagement
Maps by Matt Kelso, Manager of Data and Technology
Dunkard Creek winds a course along the Southern Pennsylvania border of West Virginia through some of the densest coal mining and natural gas fields in the United States.
In 2009, watershed scientists in the region were alarmed to discover the creek, hosting one of the most diverse ecosystems of the Monongahela River watershed, had suffered a devastating fish kill. Some studies estimate that nearly 20,000 fish and other aquatic species were lost in the ecological disaster that may take decades to reclaim. In 2011, the US Environmental Protection Agency stated that a golden algae bloom was to blame, caused by excessive water withdrawals from energy companies and unchecked discharges of acid mine drainage (AMD) from abandoned coal mining. CONSOL Energy, the predominant extraction company in Southwestern PA, ultimately agreed to pay $5.5 million, limit their water use, and build a better AMD treatment facility by 2013.
Some watershed scientists studying the causes of the fish kill, however, suspected a more complicated chain of events was to blame. Golden algae thrive in highly brackish (salty) waters that may have been caused by AMD discharges and low water levels. But conductivity measurements of total dissolved solids (TDS) in Dunkard Creek, an indicator of high water salinity, registered much higher than would be associated with AMD, even during periods of extremely low water. Residents living along Dunkard Creek and neighboring communities in Greene County suggest the events leading up to the fish kill may instead have been caused by natural gas drilling waste mixing with AMD discharges, either through cross-contamination in mines from migrating groundwater, or from the illegal dumping of drilling waste into abandoned mines and AMD treatment pools.
While the Dunkard Creek fish kill remains a highly contested issue, the environmental disaster was one of a number of early warning events alerting communities to the unknown risks of shale gas drilling in regions with a long history of coal extraction. This article, part of the FracTracker Knowing Our Waters project, tells the story of a the Marcellus Shale water monitoring community working to understand the complications of shale gas drilling in coalfield regions. In particular, this article highlights the work of concerned citizens in Greene County, PA, as well as the nonprofit organizations and academic researchers that support their efforts as watchdogs of threatened watersheds. Despite findings that the Dunkard Creek fish kill was due to water withdrawals and AMD discharges, these citizen water monitor groups have data to support arguments that improper shale gas waste disposal is linked to deteriorating watershed conditions.
Coal Mining, Shale Gas, and Water Quality in Greene County
Greene County produces over 12% of the underground mined coal tonnage in the United States. The combined output of three active mines – Bailey Mine Complex (three different underground mines that combined are the largest underground mine complex in North America), Cumberland Mine, and Emerald Mine #1 – contributed nearly 20 million tons of coal in 2013. These three mines also make Greene County one of only two in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania where longwall coal mining is still practiced – a process often considered, along with hydraulic fracturing and tar sands removal, to be an “extreme” method of fossil fuel extraction. The process of longwall mining uses a highly mechanized extraction process to bore out coal bed segments 800 feet wide, 7,000 feet long, and 7 feet high. The residual earth is then allowed to collapse as machinery advances along its path. The fact that two “extreme” fossil-fuel extraction industries – longwall mining and hydraulic fracturing – co-exist in Greene County is a rarity in the US. Greene County is also home to many abandoned mines from more than a century of coal extraction.
One of the most prominent impacts from legacy coal mining comes from acid mine drainage (AMD) discharges, formed through the chemical reaction of subsurface water entering coal beds that contain sulfur-bearing minerals. This process results in the formation of sulfuric acid – particularly in flooded abandoned mines. AMD fluids are highly toxic when they reach the surface, and can have harmful health effects on humans and ecosystems. The drainage can be treated to neutralize the harmful effects of sulfites and heavy metals. However, many AMD discharge sites remain undermanaged due to a lack of state resources for abandoned mine reclamation projects.
Impacts from active coal mining can include declining groundwater levels that cause drinking wells to dry up, redirected surface and groundwater flow patterns, migration of methane and other gases released in the process of mining, and the discharge of polluted water used in processing extracted coal. The US EPA and the PA Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) require coal-mining operators to limit discharges into surface waters, and in some instances these regulations have been effective. For instance, in March of 2014, the US EPA and the Department of Justice charged Alpha Resources with more than 6,000 discharge violations in Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Tennessee, Virginia, and Kentucky. In addition to a $27.5 million fine, Alpha Resources was ordered to invest $150 million in Greene County to build reverse osmosis AMD treatment plants.