A few months ago I wrote a blog post about a fish kill
that occurred a year ago in Dunkard Creek, a once incredibly diverse stream that straddles the border of West Virginia and Pennsylvania. Over 10,000 fish were found dead one day after a mysterious mass of pollutants traveled downstream, causing golden algae to bloom in its wake. This golden algae, called prymnesium parvum, blooms in saline water with high levels of total dissolved solids (TDS), and is toxic to aquatic life.
Authorities suspected that the briny wastewater of a nearby gas drilling operation, or wastewater from a CONSOL mine treatment facility may have been responsible for creating the salinity and TDS levels necessary for the golden algae to flourish. The disaster in Dunkard Creek intensified growing anxieties about TDS in West Virginia.
There are currently 21 streams in West Virginia that have been identified as having dangerously high levels of TDS. TDS can come from a variety of sources, such as sewage, agricultural and residential runoff, or point-source pollution from industrial facility discharge. Identifying the exact point of TDS contamination is incredibly difficult. Many West Virginians, however, are concerned that growing numbers of gas drilling operations, which are targeting the Marcellus shale, may be raising the levels of TDS in our waterways at an alarming rate.
The Marcellus Shale is a 5,000 to 8,000-foot-deep rock formation that lies under a large part of the Northern Appalachian Mountains. Each well drilled into the shale uses between 1 million and 4 million gallons of pressurized water to fracture the rock and release the gas contained inside. Up to one-half of that water, which contains lubricating chemicals and contaminants, is pushed back to the surface by the gas. Drilling companies must then dispose of this water, a task that is apparently hard to accomplish without contaminating waterways in the process. It is largely believed that gas drilling companies were illegally dumping their wastewater into Dunkard Creek prior to the fish kill that occurred there in 2009.
Last week, the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) took an important step in allaying growing concerns about TDS levels in the state. The DEP proposed three new water-quality standards that, if passed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), will go into effect sometime next year.
The DEP wants to create a legal limit for the amount of TDS allowed in West Virginia's waterways — limiting levels to 500 milligrams per liter of stream water. This would be a more stringent rule than the one found in neighboring Pennsylvania, who limits TDS to that amount only for public drinking water systems.
The Water Research Institute at WVU began monitoring water quality on the Monongahela River and some of its tributaries last summer to evaluate how new industrial activity is impacting water quality. As gas-drilling becomes more and more common here in West Virginia, its important that we understand the implications this may have for the integrity of our water resources. Recent attacks on valley fill operations
by mountaintop removal mines have convinced me that the U.S. EPA is beginning to take water quality issues in West Virginia very seriously. I have great hope that the proposed standards for TDS will be passed by the EPA, so that West Virginians can rest assured that there are not industrial contaminants free-flowing into our rivers and streams.