West Virginia University, through research, reason and cooperation from coal companies, recently demonstrated how “a little science goes a long way” in correcting a potential water quality issue without costing jobs or increasing anyone’s electricity or sewage rates.
When the Monongahela River experienced a rise in levels of Total Dissolved Solids –inorganic salts and small amounts of organic matter—in the late summer of 2008, WVU experts joined with the coal industry to create, organize and implement a voluntary, non-regulatory solution. Although high levels of TDS are not generally associated with health risks, levels in the Mon exceeded the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s secondary drinking water standards for taste and smell.
WVU’s Paul Ziemkiewicz, director of WVU’s Water Research Institute, began a strategic monitoring program in the upper Mon and its major tributaries to determine where the salts were coming from, whether the situation was getting worse or whether it was just a seasonal phenomenon. The main stem of the Mon was sampled at four stations from near McKeesport, Pa., to just above the Morgantown Utility Board water intake in Morgantown.
“The results were surprising,” Ziemkiewicz said. “In some tributaries such as Whiteley Creek, Ten Mile Creek and the Youghiogheny River, more than half of the salt was sodium chloride, characteristic of gas wells. Other creeks are dominated by mine water chemistry, namely sodium and calcium sulfate. The Mon carries a mixture of these salts. Coal mining, both active and abandoned, brine from gas wells, sewage and power plants all contribute TDS to the Mon. Peak TDS was strictly seasonal. From December through June the River flow runs high, diluting salts well below levels of concern. However, from July through November the flows are low and that’s when TDS concentrations were peaking. “
The results of the study suggested a way to manage TDS in the Mon. Ziemkiewicz reasoned that the most easily managed component of the TDS picture was the active deep coal mines.
“Why not reduce pumping of the deep mines during the dry period, store the water in worked out parts of the mines, then pump hard during the wet season? ” he said.
Other people and agencies had the same idea. The trick was to organize the industry and provide the management tools that would allow them to look at the river gauges and determine how much they can pump to keep the TDS below the secondary drinking water standard in the river. This had the advantage of being inexpensive and easily implemented.
By late fall of 2009, Ziemkiewicz, working with major coal companies in the upper Monongahela River Basin, formed a “Coal industry TDS Working Group” to design and implement a managed discharge system. Ziemkiewicz developed a system that accounted for the pumping capacities of the 14 major mine pumping and treatment plants in the upper Mon and their typical TDS concentrations, and then tied the salt output to the flow in the Mon on any particular day. Those flows can be read from gauges that are reported hourly on the U.S. Geological Survey web site. The system allows the companies to look at the gauge reading and set their pumps to the indicated rate, thereby coordinating the outflows.
“I think it’s safe to say that we have a voluntary, non-regulatory process for controlling TDS from mine discharges that is effective, low cost and efficient,” Ziemkiewicz said. “The credit goes to the coal industry for making this happen, pointing the way to a common sense way to regulate salts.”
Ziemkiewicz said it is noteworthy that none of the four monitoring stations in the Mon main stem showed elevated levels since initiation of the managed discharge program in January, 2010. In fact, peak salt concentrations have been coming down at all stations.
“There is still a lot of TDS from undocumented sources in the Mon, and we need to find out more about them in order to protect drinking water supplies and other river users,” he said. “But, the real beauty of this process is that it uses a, co-operative approach to protecting the Mon. In resource rich states like West Virginia and Pennsylvania, it shows how we can achieve better results when people come together to resolve problems. This approach controls TDS without costing any miners their jobs or raising anyone’s electricity or sewage rates. A little science goes a long way.”
The WV WRI is funded through the US Geological Survey and has been in existence since 1967. It serves as a statewide vehicle for performing research related to water issues. WVWRI is the premier water research center in West Virginia and, within selected fields, an international leader. WVWRI is part of WVU’s Advanced Energy Initiative.
For more information about the Monongahela River study, visit http://www.monwq.net/index.cfm.
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CONTACT: David W. Saville, WV WRI