Ryerson Station State Park is located in Greene County, Pennsylvania. It used to contain Duke Lake, a 62-acre body of water that was home to numerous fish and other wildlife. Constructed in 1960, Ryerson Station Dam was breached in 2005 after being damaged considerably by underground coal mining operations, making Duke Lake disappear.
Energy giant Consol operates three of the most productive coal mines in the world in the immediate vicinity of Ryerson Station. Subsidence resulting from longwall mining by the company’s Bailey Mine taking place within 1,000 feet of the dam was singled out as the cause of the damage to Ryerson Station Dam by the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR).
The Department of Economic Protection (DEP) subsequently launched an investigation. The results were predictable.
“The DEP has concluded that longwall mining operations conducted by CPCC [Consol Pennsylvania Coal Corporation] did result in ground movements which damaged the Ryerson Station Dam.”
In 2008, the DCNR sued Consol for $58 million dollars, the amount the agency said was necessary to replace the dam, restore the lake and fauna, and repair damages made to the park.
Years of wrangling ensued, with the courts proving to be as generally ineffective as they always are in these sorts of situations. After months of negotiations, Consol and the DCNR came to an agreement that would have made old Henry Clay Frick smile.
Forget about the $58 million. Instead, Consol will pay $36 million, and that comes with more strings attached than a leader caddy. Part of the money will come in the form of a lease payment that will allow Consol to drill for natural gas under the park they just destroyed. Consol will also continue mining operations under parts of the park. Oh, and did I mention that a stipulation to this agreement is that Consol will not claim any responsibility for damaging the dam and surrounding area?
I visited the park shortly after the lake was drained and saw the destruction first hand. Even the road skirting the park buckled. I don’t know what damage was inflicted on the Texas Eastern Transmission Pipeline or the massive TETCO compression station that sits only feet from the dam, and apparently neither does anyone else. All we know for sure is that Consol isn’t at fault.
Patrick Grenter, executive director of the Center for Coalfield Justice, probably spoke for many people when he said:
“We’re pleased that the dam will be reconstructed but we’re outraged that not only has Consol avoided taking responsibility for the failure of the dam eight years ago, but the settlement is tied to a profit-making venture for the company. We were hoping for some leadership on this from our state officials, but they passed on the opportunity.”
But what else would you expect from such a meeting of the minds? Any illusions in the willingness or ability of the DCNR to protect the natural environment should have been shattered long ago. As this page reports:
“1.5 million acres of forest sit atop the Marcellus Shale formation, and DCNR has leased out 700,000 acres of it for drilling.”
Not very surprising from an agency headed by Richard Allan, a guy who has been “a consultant to energy producers in the electric, wind, solar and coal sectors.” Unfortunately, the DCNR is hardly alone.
Everyone wants to get their hands in the pie. The Fish and Boat Commission is busy selling water from lakes they control for fracking, and the natural gas out from the under the property they own too.
No worries though. It’s all safe. At least according to Pennsylvania’s DEP. Last month Michael Krancer, the former head of that agency, stepped down from his position to head back to his pals at the Blank Rome law firm, where he will “work on behalf of the energy industry.” As a special bonus to potential clients, Krancer’s public relations people promise he now “offers access to regional policy makers that other firms do not have.”
No wonder Consol lobbyist Tommy Johnson called the sweetheart Duke Lake deal “a tremendous win for all of us.”
“Us” is the key word there, and it doesn’t include people like you and me.
Readers unfamiliar with Consol may have heard of the massive Dunkard Creek Fish Kill. Dunkard Creek jumps back and forth over the border between Greene County, Pennsylvania and the state of West Virginia, before flowing into the Monongahela River. In 2009, tens of thousands of fish and other aquatic creatures were killed there by the first documented golden algae bloom in the Mid-Atlantic states. According to the New York Times, Environmental Protection Agency biologist Lou Reynolds described the situation in a series of emails that read in part:
“What a mess! Up to our knees in rotting fish, mussels and mudpupp(ies) is no fun – it’s criminal. Dead mudpupp(ies) 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…
“Mining companies are disposing of (coalbed methane) and Marcellus water in the mine pool. Mining companies are taking (coalbed methane) and Marcellus water into their treatment ponds. One or any combinations of the above might be happening.”
Environmental agencies later concluded that mine water discharge raised the level of dissolved solids in the creek, leading to the unprecedented algae bloom. (Natural gas drilling, or “fracking,” had a little something to do with it too.) In 2011, Consol agreed to pay $5.5 million in fines and construct a water treatment plant in the area for committing hundreds of Clean Water Act violations at six of its West Virginia mines. In time honored fashion, the company never claimed any responsibility for the havoc inflicted, instead insisting the arrangement put the company “at the forefront of environmental stewardship.”
Even though I haven’t fished Duke Lake for something like 20 years, I do have quite a few early memories of the place. It was one of the first places my father ever took me to fish. The first place I ever saw blue herons nesting (though back then I mistakenly called them cranes). The first place I saw how important color can be in fishing, when rainbow trout eagerly snapped up yellow versions of bait that went completely ignored in green. It was the first place I ever taught a person younger than me how to rig up and cast a fishing pole, leading them to catch their first fish. And it was also the first place I ever saw PA Fish and Boat Commission officers spy on anglers from hundreds of yards away with binoculars, presumably to make sure they were following the rules and regulations (just like Consol does).
Duke Lake was a relatively small, shallow lake that held a few species of fish like carp, bass and stocked trout. Although it was one of the only places to fish in Greene County, it was hardly the best location to wet a line. The original impounding of North Fork Dunkard Fork to create the lake undoubtedly caused problems of its own, as damming tends to do. But that’s all beyond the point.
The problem here isn’t just the destruction of a dam. That’s why the solution can’t just be the construction of a new one. It doesn’t take a superior sense of smell to know that this whole thing stinks worse than the corpses of the fish left rotting on the old lake bed when Ryerson Station Dam was dismantled. That stench won’t easily be washed away.