On September 30, 2009, the Maryland Department of Natural Resources took an unprecedented step in an effort to protect a rare species of giant salamander called the hellbender that lives in streams in Western Maryland and elsewhere.
The department issued the first and only “jeopardy opinion” ever written since the 1975 passage of the Maryland Endangered Species Act, state officials said. The opinion said that the state could not approve a proposed water discharge permit for what would be the state’s largest underground coal mine -– the Casselman Mine proposed beside the Casselman River in Garrett County -– because acidic pollution from the mine could cause the extermination of all of the remaining hellbenders in Maryland.
Hellbenders are olive-green amphibians, once common across Appalachia, that are now an endangered species in Maryland and are declining across the region. They are dying off in part because they breathe through their skin, and so are extremely sensitive to water pollution, especially acid mine drainage, according to the DNR opinion.
The olive-green salamanders live under broad, flat rocks in streams and grow to be about the length of a man’s arm. These nocturnal crayfish-eaters have broad, flat heads; paddle-shaped tails; and baggy flaps of extra skin sagging from their sides. They’re also called “Allegany alligators,” “water dogs,” and “mud devils,” but the nicknames are ironic, because in reality they are harmless to people -– and indeed, are soft-bodied and reclusive.
The state held a series of public hearings about the proposed permits for the Casselman Mine last year, during which some local residents expressed concerns about the fate of the hellbenders and an endangered species of fish, called the stonecat.
The state Senator who represents Western Maryland, George Edwards, complained to top state officials about how long the review process was taking. He wrote a letter to Natural Resources Secretary John Griffin, accusing his agency of being the “Department of Just Say No.”
“It was ridiculous, to be quite to the point,” said Sen. Edwards, whose campaign received a $1,000 contribution from the mining company, Maryland Energy Resources LLC, on August 26, 2010, according to state records.
“Time to businesses is money, and nobody is asking anyone to circumvent anything. Just be a little more efficient," Edwards said. "These are good paying jobs, good paying jobs, and it will help the economy out considerably.” (To hear the WYPR public radio program that included this interview with Edwards, click here).
On September 27, 2010, the department reversed course and rescinded its jeopardy opinion, state records show. The state agency said it made this decision after working with the Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE) to modify the mine’s water discharge permit to better protect the endangered species, records indicate.
The revised permit, approved by MDE two days later, on September 29, will allow 144,000 gallons of water to be discharged from the Casselman Mine, as opposed to the 500,000 gallons originally proposed, and set more strict limits for the acidity of the effluent, according to the permit.
John Carey, Director of the MDE’s Bureau of Mines, said the mine’s discharge will be carefully monitored and treated. He said a sensor will automatically shut off the flow if the acidity reaches a level that could harm hellbenders.
“We didn’t feel that there would be any kind of an impact on the river,” Carey said in an interview. “If we thought it would, we would not have issued the permit.”
The Casselman Mine, whose entrance is less than 100 yards from the Casselman River, is expected to open next month, with tunnels under the river, state officials said. The mine will produce about 700,000 tons of coal a year over the next 10 to 15 years -– boosting the state’s total production of coal by about a quarter. It will employ 50 to 60 people, and extract coal from 2,700 acres underground, using two large machines, according to MDE.
“We are very concerned -– extremely concerned -– about these two endangered species,” Carey said. “We don’t want anything to go wrong here.”
To help protect the hellbenders, the state will be inspecting the mine at least twice a month, and will be testing water quality in the river upstream and downstream, Carey said.
Only about 40 of these rare creatures have been found during surveys in Maryland’s Casselman River over the last quarter century, including only one –- an 18 inch male -– found by Thompson last August.
Standing beside the rocky stream on a recent afternoon, Thompson said accidents and spills at mines have historically caused mass die-offs of hellbenders and fish across the region.
“There are two things that could happen,” Thompson said. “The mine may not have an impact, or something may happen, and it could be the final coup-de-gras …. It could put them over the edge, since we do not think the population right now is in very good shape.”
As someone who has looking out for hellbenders in the Casselman for a quarter century, Thompson said it would be a shame to lose such an impressive animal.
“They are such an ancient species, you just hate to see them suddenly start disappearing throughout their range, because they are a really unique form of life,” Thompson said.
Also concerned about the new mine’s impact on the hellbender is Dr. Peter Petokas, a biologist at Lycoming College in Pennsylvania, who studies the salamanders in tributaries to the Susquehanna River and in his lab.
Petokas notes that hellbenders, the largest salamanders in the Americas, have a tragic history of being misunderstood and slaughtered, in part because of their “ugly” appearance.
“The origin of the name ‘hellbender’ is not clear. Some folks often will say that anything that ugly is surely bent for hell,” Dr. Petokas said. “People think that, one, they bite; two, that they’re poisonous; and three, that they eat game fish, which of course they don’t do.”
The salamanders eat crayfish, have tiny teeth, and are not poisonous.
As an example of their persecution, Petokas said that back in the 1930’s, troops of men, organized by the state of Pennsylvania, would troop up and down streams at night, with lanterns and trident-like spears called “gig poles” and massacre hellbenders. They thought (incorrectly) that they were eating all the fish and so called them "vermin." One local newspaper proclaimed: “War on Vermin Planned to Battle Water Dogs.”
The hellbenders survived this effort to eliminate them, in part because they live under large, heavy rocks, and so are very difficult to find, he said.
But Dr. Petokas said that coal mines, along with other sources of water pollution, have proven to be a more serious threat to the survival of the species. He said he is concerned about the new coal mine scheduled for opening next month beside the Casselman River.
“Given that the population is already at such a low level, you could eliminate the entire population from the Casselman, should a mine open that would affect water quality in the river, most definitely,” Dr. Petokas said.
Perhaps these misunderstood creatures are sending a message in their disappearance: That it is our appetite for fossil fuel, not a salamander with a little extra skin, that is truly ugly.
By Tom Pelton
Chesapeake Bay Foundation
(Photo at top by Neil Ever Osborne, International League of Conservation Photographers. Other photos by Tom Pelton)