Sharp Decline In Salamander Population In Streams Near Gas Pipeline Construction

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By Julie Grant / The Allegheny Front

At the Penta Career Center in Toledo, high school students in Nicole Costello’s small reptiles class are learning firsthand how to foster an aquatic species that experts say is in decline - the Eastern Hellbender Salamander.

In a bio-secured room on campus, 18-year-old Theresa Paff and other students clean the glass tanks, weigh and cut up worms to feed to the young Hellbenders they’re raising. Paff picked up one that was three years old.   

“It’s really hard to hold. They always like to move, and they’re so slimy and slippery,” he said.

These are not the cute, colorful little salamanders that might come to mind. They’re brown and mottled.

“Some people would say they’re so ugly they’re cute," said Greg Lipps.  Lipps is an expert on hellbenders at Ohio State University, and works with the high school program. He said  there’s a good reason they’re often called snot otters, Allegheny alligators, or "old lasagne-sides."

“They’re kind of a flattened, wrinkly sided, beady eyed salamander. Everything about them is made to live underneath a big rock in tight spots and darkness," he said.

Lipps said the adults can get big - over two feet long - and can live 35 years or more. Hellbenders are mainly found in streams along the Appalachian mountains in Pennsylvania and eastern Ohio. And these guys are tough; the species has survived for millions of years.  That's why Lipps was so concerned when he and a colleague found an 82 percent drop in their populations in Ohio.  They were not finding many young hellbenders.

“It’s kind of like if the whole world became a nursing home overnight. You know that the end is near if you don’t have any youngsters in these populations," Lipps said.

Researchers suspect the problem has to do with increased sediment in the water. Young hellbenders are thought to live in little spaces in gravel beds, that are easily filled with sediment.

Lipps has watched as waterways, especially in the steep hills of eastern Ohio, near the Pennsylvania and West Virginia borders, have gotten muddier.

The reason seems obvious to him: pipelines.

“And you can trace this, it’s not rocket science when you see the muddy water to drive upstream until you see clear water and then figure out well, what’s happening, where’s the in between?" he said.  "And when I’ve done that it’s been pipeline construction.”

To get a better picture of the gas pipeline boom here, Ted Auch of Fractracker, a non-profit that tracks the fracking industry, has organized a tour by plane of West Virginia and Ohio.

As we get into the air, he’s floored by how many hillsides are cleared of trees, to make way for pipelines.  Flying above the landscape, you can see how these gathering lines are creating a web, connecting  natural gas well pads and compressor stations. Ohio and Pennsylvania are among the states with the most gathering lines in the country - each with more than 20,000 miles of them.

Pipeline companies are supposed replant the pipeline corridors. But Auch said many don’t.

“See, that’s all pipelines," he said, pointing to the landscape below.  "And they have not hydro-seeded that, you see what I’m talking about? And they’ve got that apron, that tarping material that’s supposed to prevent the loading of sediment down. But they didn’t hydroseed any of that.”

On the ground in eastern Ohio, the hills are alive with pipeline construction. To the north, are the bigger transmission lines - the Mariner East and the Rover. Smaller gathering lines have names like the Hot Sauce Hustle, and Dr. Awkward.

Ohio State researcher Greg Lipps said when companies strip these steep hillsides of forest for pipelines, it can destroy his team’s efforts to restore streambanks, and protect the habitat for Eastern Hellbenders and other aquatic species.

"What you create is effectively what can be a river of mud every time it rains. It’s really a problem." he said.  "The amount of silt and sediment that can come from a pipeline cut and from an eroding stream bank is immense."

Many of new pipelines also cross the streams themselves, like they do at Captina Creek, a high quality stream and home to hellbenders. It empties into the Ohio River. The pipeline companies either bore underneath the stream bed or dig right through the water.

According to an Allegheny Front review of applications to the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency, the state has issued at least 13 permits, including 66 pipeline stream crossings in the Captina Creek watershed alone since 2014.

Harry Kallipolitis manages the Ohio EPA’s permitting process. His agency, as required by the Clean Water Act, certifies that pipeline crossings are not going to jeopardize the stream quality.

“We evaluate what benefits to society it may have and weight that against the potential impacts to water quality," he said.  "Our lower bar is not jeopardizing the existing use or how that stream is performing. And we do authorize the potential lowering of water quality with potential mitigation for that loss.”

Kallipolitis said there’s no regulation looking at the cumulative impacts of the new lines. He said they have not seen impacts on any streams from multiple pipeline crossings.

“We evaluate a lot of streams in Ohio, and you know to my knowledge we haven’t had any of those reports come back to us and say that the stream is jeopardized by multiple crossings associated with pipeline projects," said Kallipolitis.

Still, Kallipolitis said the Ohio EPA will propose new sediment regulations for pipelines in the coming months.  Researchers at West Virginia University also are starting to look at ways to reduce the environmental impacts of pipelines.

Michael Strager is a professor of resource economics at West Virginia University. He plans to use GIS technology and drones to map pipelines in the region, and then his colleague will match the locations with water quality data in nearby streams.

“So I think how our work is going to be useful is to really aid in the permitting process as part of a planning approach to really direct this industry to places where we can potentially have less of an impact than others," said Strager.

Like the students at Penta Career Center, these West Virginia researchers want the waterways clean enough so species like the Eastern Hellbenders can survive here.

The high schoolers will join experts to release the young salamanders into the streams of eastern Ohio over the summer. 


The Allegheny Front is produced in Pittsburgh and reports on the environment. 

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