Toxic algae changes game for W.Va. water quality BRIAN FARKAS The Associated Press CHARLESTON, W.Va. - Toxic algae blamed for killing thousands of fish in a northern West Virginia stream are forcing the state to rethink how it regulates water quality, a Department of Environmental Protection official told lawmakers Thursday. West Virginia environmental and wildlife officials don't know how golden alga reached the state, but they are worried it could jump to other watersheds like the North Branch of the Potomac before it's controlled, said Scott Mandirola, DEP's interim director of water and waste. Water quality standards once thought to be protective, and the timing of enacting new standards will have to be reconsidered, he said. The algae's presence "definitely changes the game," Mandirola said. "It changes everything." The alga was first identified in Texas in 1985, and its discovery in Dunkard Creek last month marks the first time its been found so far north, Mandirola said. The cell-sized organisms release a toxin that attacks fish, mussels and other aquatic life. The toxin is not considered harmful to humans. Dunkard Creek, a tributary of the Monongahela River, meanders along the West Virginia-Pennsylvania border. September's algae bloom turned the stream tea-colored and left more than 30 miles of waterway all but devoid of life. Only water bugs and some minnows in feeder streams survive. "One hundred percent wiped out," is how Frank Jernejcic, a fish biologist with the state Division of Natural Resources, described the creek to the Legislature's Oversight Commission on State Water Resources. Regulators are looking at whether water discharges from nearby underground coal mines are creating optimal conditions for the algae's growth. In times of low water, discharges from the mines represent the bulk of the flow in the creek, Mandirola said. DEP has said high levels of chloride and other dissolved solids, along with the creek's water temperature, helped create conditions along the 38-mile waterway for the algae to thrive. The mines are operated by Consol Energy, which has agreed to stop injecting wastewater from coalbed methane gas wells into a nearby mine. DEP has said halting the injections will help determine if the wastewater was increasing pollution discharges from Consol's Blacksville No. 2 mine. Jernejcic said he toured Dunkard Creek last week and found only minnows. Before the kill, the stream supported 18 species of fish and 14 species of mussel. The mussel populations, which were the last major stronghold for mussels in the Monongahela River basin, were "completely eradicated," Jernejcic said. Tissue samples confirmed the fish and mussel deaths were caused by golden alga, he said. Golden alga is typically found in estuaries or in freshwater areas with high salt content. Mandirola told lawmakers that water samples taken from the West Virginia fork of Dunkard Creek in late August, days before the first fish deaths were reported, showed high conductivity levels, indicating something was amiss with the stream's quality. DEP says it needs to start looking at streams closest to Dunkard Creek. Because regulators are not sure how to control the algae, Mandirola said the DEP is concerned that 19 other watersheds might be areas of concern. Among them are the Mud River, which flows through Boone, Lincoln and Cabell counties, Cabin Creek in Kanawha County and Little Coal River in Boone County.