We’ll probably never know. A new story in Scientific American notes that even though a coal company paid a multi-million-dollar settlement to the EPA over the 2009 fish kill on Dunkard Creek, an EPA scientist suspected fracking could be the real culprit.
He also suggested fracking fluid might have been dumped in a coal mine waste pit which then contaminated the creek, so in a sense both the coal and gas industries would be responsible.
Even with emails uncovered through the Freedom of Information Act, the story can make no firm conclusion about the cause of the fish kill, the biggest in Pennsylvania and West Virginia history (the creek winds back and forth along the state line.)
But it does make a few things clear:
- Fish kills are awful. “What a mess!” SA quotes EPA biologist Lou Reynolds writing to colleagues. “Up to our knees in rotting fish, mussels, and mudpuppys is no fun — it’s criminal. Dead mudpuppys look like sock puppets floating in the stream. Mussels die, the meat rots off the shell, then bloats and floats down the stream like a hellish jelly fish. The stench of rotting fish takes a day or more to work out of your scent memory.”
- Authorities believe at least one trucker hired by the gas industry dumped fracking waste into streams, a top worry of stream advocates. “In March, Pennsylvania authorities arrested a local waste hauler, Allan Shipman, whose trucks were contracted to dispose of flowback brine from gas companies. The allegations against Shipman, laid out in a grand jury presentment, say he improperly disposed of brine in tributaries of Dunkard Creek.” (Shipman isn’t charged with any wrongdoing upstream of the kill.)
- Frack waste is as bad as coal mine waste, which has been a scourage of Appalachia for decades. “What scientists could say definitively about the fish kill is that a swift increase in ‘total dissolved solids,’ or TDS, played a role, creating the conditions for a bloom of the toxic algae. What they couldn’t tell is exactly what caused the increase. TDS can be caused by both coal mine drainage and waste brine from Marcellus Shale gas drilling operations.” Is New York ready for what could, in terms of waste, be thousands of mini coal mines?
Albany pundits are calling fracking in New York a done deal. President Obama is calling for more natural gas production. Even Trout Unlimited has stopped short of flat-out opposition to fracking. It may be that Gov. Andrew Cuomo is saving his environmental firepower to shut down the Indian Point nuke plant, and TU is doing the same to stop the abominable Pebble Mine proposal in Alaska.
But it also seems very likely that fracking in New York will end up in court. Hellish jelly fish may be Exhibit A.