Thanks in part to West Virginia University water experts, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has removed the Monongahela River from a list of “impaired” Pennsylvania waterways.

The river was first designated as “impaired” by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection in 2010 due to sulfate contamination. While sulfate generally does not make water unsafe for humans, it can cause a bad taste and interfere with industrial processes that require purer water.

The West Virginia Water Research Institute at WVU, led by Director Paul Ziemkiewicz, had already launched a study of the Mon River and its major tributaries in 2009.

From that research, the Institute helped develop a novel approach that combined water science with stakeholder collaboration to restore the river in less time than a traditional regulatory process might have taken.

“We were able to gather the data, diagnose the problem and recommend a treatment strategy for the Mon that produced results,” Ziemkiewicz said.

Grants from the Colcom Foundation and the U.S. Geological Survey aided the Institute’s endeavors, creating a voluntary, science-based, non-regulatory, watershed-wide program to wash away the sulfate problem.

How they got there

All streams dissolve minerals and other natural compounds called salts. Therefore, small amounts of dissolved salts are to be expected. Too much, though, causes problems for humans, plants, animals and industrial processes that use water.

In 2008, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in Pittsburgh and water suppliers and users along the Mon River reported very high salt levels in the river.

In the lower Mon River, specific conductivity and total dissolved solids (or TDS) levels, a measure of water quality, were nearly twice as high as those documented during the Corps’ entire 1969-2008 monitoring period. That included the period prior to the mid-1970s when untreated mine drainage and pollution were so severe that fish could not live in the river.

Because of that, the West Virginia Water Research Institute began its study.

Ziemkiewicz said the Institute learned that federal and state agencies monitoring the river had programs, which while useful, could not answer three key questions:

• Which salts were causing the problem?
• Where were they coming from?
• How could they be controlled?

The U.S. Geological Survey’s Water Institutes Program funded initial monitoring efforts. Subsequent funding from the Colcom Foundation established the Three Rivers Quest, a water quality monitoring and reporting program for the Mon, Allegheny and Ohio rivers.

Institute staff, including WVU students in environmental studies programs, has monitored water quality of the Mon and its major tributaries every two weeks since July 2009. Data collected through Three Rivers Quest is available on its website.

By December 2009, it became clear that calcium sulfate was the dominant salt. The sulfate was coming from underground coalmines where water was being pumped out and treated before being discharged into nearby streams. The metals in the mine water were removed, but not the sulfates.

“Calcium sulfate is common in mine water, so we’d identified the source,” Ziemkiewicz said. “We also knew that controlling calcium sulfate would control TDS. We found that high TDS was strictly seasonal.”

Ziemkiewicz noted that from December through July, the river flow runs high, diluting salts well below levels of concern. However, from August through November, the water flows are lower and spikes in sulfate and TDS can occur.

“We met with the coal industry along the Mon and asked them to tell us how much they were pumping from each of their treatment plants and what their TDS concentrations were,” Ziemkiewicz said. “Within a couple of weeks, we had the data and I supplied them with a computer program that showed how much they could discharge from each treatment plant based on the flow in the Mon River that day.

“These are huge, underground mines, between 10 to 20 square miles,” he continued. “The worked out parts of the mine could be used to store water until the river conditions were right. The idea was that by managing the release of treated mine water to coincide with periods when the river was high, we could solve the sulfate and TDS problem.”

It worked.

Industry took Ziemkiewicz’s advice and began discharge management in January 2010. Since then, the levels of both sulfate and TDS have met EPA standards in the Mon River.

In December, the EPA approved the Pennsylvania DEP’s report that the river’s “in-stream level of sulfates now meets Pennsylvania’s water quality standards.”

Ziemkiewicz points out that discharge management only works because industry buys into the process and regular river monitoring validates the outcome.

Carol Zagrocki, of the Colcom Foundation, said, “The accomplishments of the program are a tribute to the unique collaborations among dedicated scientists, academics, and community volunteers striving to improve the health of our rivers and streams, as well as our quality of life.”

While not the answer to every water quality problem, managing water quality on a watershed basis rather than managing individual discharges has advantages.

Improvement is almost immediate.

“Modest financial investment results in major improvements,” Ziemkiewicz said. “We solved the sulfate and TDS problem without costing any miners their jobs or raising anyone’s electricity or water rates.

“And the results meet the intent of the Federal Clean Water Act which is to prevent pollution while restoring polluted waterways without adding any new regulations.

“The beauty is that this is an elegant, co-operative approach for protecting a big river like 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.

“A little science can go a long way.”



CONTACT: Paul Ziemkiewicz, West Virginia Water Research Institute

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