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Betty Wiley grew up here on Dunkard Creek in West Virginia.
“I remember, going in where it was shallow, and picking up rocks and finding crawdads," Betty recalls, standing in the creek on a recent afternoon. "There were lots of mussels, and lots of little fish. We’d catch these little fish. And it was a part of our lives.”
Then one day this fall, she took a walk down the stream again, this time with her grandchildren, aged 11 and 7. The water didn’t look right. It was the color of copper; sort of greenish. And everywhere she looked, fish were floating or twitching – including a dead muskie, about 40 inches long.
“It was almost as though a family member had died," Betty said. "It was just unbelievable.”
Eventually, researchers concluded that what Betty was seeing was evidence of the worst fish kill in at least two decades in West Virginia. Just about every living creature in 32 miles of the creek had been wiped out, including rare freshwater mussels.
Here is a fish and salamander that washed up in the creek, not far from Morgantown.
Dr. Paul Ziemkiewicz, director of the Water Research Institute at nearby West Virginia University, investigated. He concluded that the usual suspect in Appalachian coal country – acidic water seeping out of coal mines – was not the likely killer, this time. For one thing, the water was the wrong color. For another, monitoring found suspiciously high salt levels in the creek… and a peculiar toxic organism called golden algae normally found only in saltier waters – not freshwater streams.
"This is the first time that golden algae has been reported in this part of the world, at all," Ziemkiewicz said. "To my knowledge, it is the first golden algae kill in the Appalachians.”
Golden algae is a single-celled microscopic organism with two tentacle-like flagella that is native to Eurasia and needs salt to bloom. It caused massive fish kills in the Middle East in the 1950’s. Then, somehow, the algae hitched a ride across the ocean and – in 1985 -- popped up in the U.S. for the first time, killing millions of fish amid the oil and gas fields of Texas and Oklahoma.
Dr. Ziemkiewicz believes that the algae might have hitch-hiked from Texas to West Virginia inside water tank trucks used in natural gas drilling. There has been a boom in drilling in West Virginia, Pennsylvania and across the Chesapeake region the last four years using a process called hydraulic fracturing. Drilling companies – often based in Texas -- suck millions of gallons of water out of streams and rivers. They then inject the water at high pressure sometimes a mile into the earth, fracturing shale and releasing natural gas into a pipe. When this water is underground, it absorbs salt. And when it re-emerges onto the surface, it’s sometimes seven times saltier than the ocean.
Dr. Ziemkiewicz suspects that drilling waste water is turning Dunkard Creek, the Monongahela River downstream, and other fresh waterways in this region increasingly salty. And that saltiness could make them a welcoming home for the algae invader that has been haunting the gas fields of Texas. So not only might the drillers be bringing the algae in, they could also be creating the conditions in which the algae can flourish.
“Any truck that comes up here and is involved in the oil and gas industry in Texas and Oklahoma ought to be sterilized before it’s allowed to operate in this area," Ziemkiewicz said. "Trucks ought not to be able to move around from one contaminated watershed like this one now, take water out of here and then move it to another watershed. That is a recipe for disaster.”
State environmental officials caution that the investigation into Dr. Ziekiewicz's theory is just beginning. Authorities say that while both golden algae and salt are believed to be contributing factors in the fish kill, it is still not clear how they got into Dunkard Creek… or who exactly is to blame.
Meanwhile, researchers are now carefully watching streams across the drilling fields of West Virginia and Pennsylvania to see if the gold rush of gas drilling will spread this golden shadow in the streams.
(Drilling and stream photos by Tom Pelton. Fish kill photos and truck photo courtesy of Paul Ziemkiewicz, Betty Wiley and Ann Payne.)