Ann Payne and Wendy Henry exchange anxious glances as they walk. They are heading down a path to the bank of Dunkard Creek in Mt. Morris, Pennsylvania. The two haven't been to this spot since Henry asked her friend Payne, a Morgantown artist, to look at an unfolding disaster on the creek near her home.
"Remember we walked down this way toward the creek and off to the left there was a bunch of birds and I thought good grief- there's a bunch of green herons. We got closer and they were eating bodies of dead fish" says Payne.
Ann and Wendy recall the scene as the " perfect storm" for a massive kill of aquatic life. It was September and the creek was low. Scientists later surmised that discharge from a coal mine created the conditions for a toxic algae bloom. As many as 65,000 aquatic animals suffocated in the salty water along the length of the stream.
"The smell was unbelievable. It was death. And I'm a country girl and I've smelled many dead things along the woods. But this was a death I never smelt before" says Henry.
Payne says she walked away from the creek determined to do something. First, she questioned scientists about the animals that disappeared from the creek. She got an official list of fish, but had to sleuth for the kinds of reptiles, mussels, amphibians and insects that had lived in Dunkard, one of the most diversely populated creeks in the region. When she finished her research, she began painting portraits of individual species.
"A year later, I think by 2010, I think I had ten paintings" says Payne.
At age 70, Payne realized she'd never be done with this project in her lifetime. So she recruited 89 other artists with close ties to the Monongahela watershed to portray 90 lost species. After months of coordination, Reflections: An Homage to Dunkard Creek hit the road in West Virginia and Pennsylvania.
On a recent night, about 100 people crowd into a college art gallery in Fairmont, West Virginia, one of the communities where the Dunkard exhibition will be hung . Ann Payne walks around the space. Small images of fish, mussels, water snakes, frogs, insects hang on the white walls. She says no two artists have used the same materials or styles to produce their portraits.
"This is a digital inkjet print.This one is needle work. Is that fun? Uhm, this one cut wood that he has put together in layers . I have no idea how he did that. That's a mudpuppy," says Payne.
Across the gallery, Brandy Fluharty and her boyfriend stare at a portrait of mimic shiners, small fish often used as bait by people who once fished the creek.
"Is it eye opening to see something like this" asks Murray.
"Yes, it's really sad", says Fluharty. "I was raised there's a lot of farmland and we have creeks and I couldn't imagine if something happened there."
Brent Bailey, director of the Appalachian program of the Mountain Institute, says this kind of conversation is exactly what his nonprofit had in mind when they agreed to sponsor the art show.
"People have been coming into this art exhibit who have never been to an art exhibit before. And they might be people who have never been to a public hearing about water quality. It's giving folks an opportunity to look at something and have a conversation about what's happening in their own back yards," says Bailey.
Back at Dunkard Creek, Ann Payne and Wendy Henry hope that people don't stop looking or talking about the fate of the creek.
"It just warms my heart knowing we have a chance now. The awareness will keep it in the forefront and not shove it under the rug," says Henry.
OUTRO: Consol Energy, blamed for the mine discharge that contributed to the disaster, has paid WV $500 thousand dollars for creek restoration and is building a $200 million dollar mine water treatment plant that must be finished by 2013. Pennsylvania agencies are currently suing Consol.