Recovery effort will take years after 2009 fish kill

MOUNT MORRIS (AP) — It has been more than seven years since an algae bloom wiped out aquatic life in portions of Dunkard Creek, but the full recovery is still years away.

It could be another five years before restocked first-generation fish reach maturity and the recovery for mussels and mudpuppies are at least another two decades away, said Christopher Urban of Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission.

The “sweeping” golden algae bloom along the creek near Brave in September 2009 caused one of the largest fish kills in recent history, Urban said while discussing the waterway’s recovery.

In all, staff officials estimate the situation killed 42,997 fish, 15,382 mussels and 6,447 mudpuppies in the Pennsylvania section of the creek that weaves between here and West Virginia.

“It zeroed out the population. It wiped it all out.” Urban said. “We have to start from scratch.”

And that is exactly what the Fish Commission is preparing to do as officials laid out restoration plans at a public meeting at the Mt. Morris Sportsmen Club in Perry Township. With the help of a $2.5 million settlement reached with Murray Energy last year, the commission now is preparing to stock the creek with native species and facilitate the creek’s recovery.

Urban said the commission has set a high baseline for recovery, but they’re already seeing some recovery. They also have tested some of the stocking efforts by cultivating 500 native mussels from the soon-to-be demolished Hunter Station Bridge along the Allegheny River to be transplanted in five places in the Dunkard. The surveys of the creek in recent years have also found muskies — believed to be stocked upstream by the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources — and invasive Asian Clams.

“We hope to end on a positive note because we’re going in the right direction,” Urban said.

Still, there were some concerns from audience members about why the recovery effort has taken so long.

The 37-mile Dunkard Creek that weaves along the Pennsylvania and West Virginia state line west of Mt. Morris before heading to the Monongahela River made it cumbersome to work on a plan between two separate bureaucracies, said Rick Lorson, the area fisheries manager for the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission.

“Hopefully, this will be the beginning of the information for the restoration and recovery of Dunkard,” Lorson said. “Why in the world has it taken until 2016? There are legal reasons and the (state line) between Pennsylvania and West Virginia have compounded that.”

The other delay was the length of time it took to reach a settlement.

The commission had sued Consol Energy, claiming high levels of chlorides and other contaminants discharged from the company’s Blacksville No. 2 Mine created the conditions for the algae bloom. It settled the suit last September with Murray Energy, which assumed liability after it purchased the Blacksville mine from Consol in December 2013. The $2.5 million the commission received as part of the settlement will be used to develop and implement projects that benefit recreational fishing and boating and the aquatic resources of the Dunkard Creek watershed.

Beyond the area of the 2009 fish kill, the commission is also monitoring other mine discharge areas near Bobtown.

Still, the smallmouth bass are beginning to move back in on their own farther downstream, according to studies taken in 2012 and this year, Lorson said.

“The number of species is coming back nicely,” Lorson said. “They’re at the top of the food chain. They’re doing well.”

The fishermen who attended the meeting were hopeful that the recovery would begin soon and could restore the creek to pre-kill levels, although Lorson admitted the golden algae, which is normally found in coastal salt waters and not in the local tributaries, could somehow return.

“We really appreciate the work you’re doing,” said Andrew Liebhold, a Mt. Morris resident and member of the Friends of Dunkard Creek group. “It’s not every day people come down to Southwestern Pennsylvania to check on us. Your work is really fantastic.”

The commission is currently under reassessment and will begin work on an assessment report next year to “guide what we do next,” Lorson said. They plan to stock the creek with rock bass, but could also release muskies depending on what that assessment show.

“It took a catastrophe for us to learn how special this stream is,” Lorson said. “We know how special it is, but a lot of people in the state didn’t know. Now, they know.”

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