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CONSOL fined $5.5 million for Dunkard pollution

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CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- CONSOL Energy Inc. will pay $5.5 million in fines and build a $200 million treatment system to resolve water quality violations federal regulators believe led to a massive fish kill along the West Virginia-Pennsylvania border, officials announced Monday.

Pittsburgh-based CONSOL will also pay $500,000 to the state of West Virginia for "natural resource damages" to Dunkard Creek in Monongalia County, where all fish, mussels, salamanders and other aquatic life were killed in the fall of 2009.

West Virginia regulators and CONSOL blamed the fish kill on non-native algae, but federal investigators said coal company discharges that were extremely high in salts created conditions that allowed the algae growth.

The settlement, if approved by a federal judge, would require CONSOL to clean up pollution discharges that violated state standards for years prior to the fish kill -- and went uncorrected with the state Department of Environmental Protection's blessing.

CONSOL would complete and begin operating a "reverse osmosis" treatment plant so that discharges from four mining complexes in the area would meet state pollution limits for chlorides by May 30, 2013.

Federal and state officials joined CONSOL executives in praising the deal. The company called it a "groundbreaking Clean Water Act settlement" that would "set the highest standard for mine water treatment."

"This agreement advances stricter water quality standards that CONSOL, and soon others, must meet," said Katharine Fredriksen, CONSOL's senior vice president of environmental strategy and regulatory affairs. "However, the watershed approach is a first of its kind and we believe it is an example others should look to in meeting their environmental challenges."

In its corporate news release, CONSOL included a quote in which DEP Secretary Randy Huffman said, "Mining is critical to our state's economy, but clean water is paramount.

"This agreement supports both," Huffman said. "We appreciate having CONSOL as our environmental and economic partner in protecting our state's watersheds."

Upstream from Dunkard Creek, in the coalfields between Fairmont and Morgantown, CONSOL operates a series of water collection and discharge points. Old underground mines in the area are filling up with tainted water. CONSOL pumps those mines out to avoid blowouts, and pumps out active operations to protect miners from floods. The company discharges the pumped water into area streams, treating it first for acid mine drainage.

But the company's existing treatment is far from perfect and doesn't do anything to help with levels of chlorides that are potentially harmful to aquatic life.

Dunkard Creek has been on the DEP's list of impaired streams since at least 2002. Over the last decade, DEP repeatedly gave CONSOL more time to fix its chlorides violations.

CONSOL continued on Monday to argue that its operations "were not the cause" of the algae bloom and DEP said, "it was never determined" how the algae got into the stream.

But federal government lawyers alleged in court documents that hundreds of chlorides violations by the company "created and/or contributed to the creation of conditions favorable for the golden algae to thrive and bloom, which ultimately led to the fish kill."

"In this settlement, CONSOL takes responsibility for its past failures to abide by the terms of its Clean Water Act permits," said Ignacia S. Moreno, assistant attorney general for the environment and natural resources division of the Justice Department.

The proposed consent decree, however, specifically states that CONSOL admits no liability, a point that CONSOL also made in its news release.

DEP officials said that fish are beginning to return to Dunkard Creek, and spokesman Tom Aluise said the $500,000 settlement would go into a Division of Natural Resources fund to be used to replace the stream's fish and mussels.

Betty Wiley, of the Dunkard Creek Watershed Association, said she is "90 percent satisfied" with the settlement, but is concerned about some of the details.

"That's not enough money to restore the stream," Wiley said. "I don't know what they will do with the money, and they don't have to spend it all on Dunkard Creek."

Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kward@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.


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