DEP Seeks Cause of River Pollution

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
22 October 2008
By Don Hopey

The state Department of Environmental Protection is investigating the source of contaminants in a 70-mile stretch of the Monongahela River that could affect the smell and taste of water for customers of 11 public water suppliers.

Although there are no reports of illness caused by the tainted water and lab tests do not indicate it is unsafe, the DEP is recommending that consumers supplied by the companies drawing water from the river use bottled water for drinking and preparing food.

"It's a precaution at this point," said DEP Secretary John Hanger. "We value the health and safety of our citizens foremost, but we have no reports that people have been sickened."

The DEP has not yet identified the source of the water pollutants, which are classified as "secondary contaminants" because they have an unpleasant odor and taste and are not considered a major public health risk. Pollutants that cause illness are classified as "primary contaminants" and include things like arsenic, mercury, benzene, asbestos and cadmium.

Mr. Hanger said the DEP first received reports of the unusually high levels of Total Dissolved Solids, or TDS, from industrial water users along the Monongahela River, on Oct. 10. He decided to issue the water advisory tonight evening after receiving laboratory reports confirming the pollutants.

"We have no information about any primary contaminants in the water. If anything shows up we'll immediately let the public know," Mr. Hanger said. "We're continuing to test the river water and are working with the public water suppliers and the water treatment facilities."

Mr. Hanger said that approximately 40 percent of the problem appears to be due to the high volumes of water from deep gas well drilling that has been released by sewage treatment facilities along the river. He has ordered the treatment facilities to reduce their intake of the "brine water" from gas well drilling by up to 95 percent, limiting those intakes to 1 percent of a treatment plant's total volume.

Some treatment facilities have been taking in up to 20 percent of their total volume from the gas well industry.

Exacerbating the effect of those high treatment plant discharges is the low flow level of the river this fall. Mr. Hanger has asked the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to release additional water from its flood control reservoirs to help dilute the pollutants.

In addition, possibly because of the low river flow, the levels of TDS measured at the Pennsylvania-West Virginia border are twice as high as they are historically in the fall.

The elevated levels significantly exceeding the state standard are occurring from the Pennsylvania-West Virginia state line north to McKeesport, where the Youghiogheny River flows into the Monongahela River, adding water volume and diluting the flow.

The public water suppliers affected are Pennsylvania-American Water Co., Aldrich Station and Brownsville Plant; Charleroi Municipal Authority; Belle Vernon Municipal Authority; Washington Township Municipal Authority; Newell Municipal Authority; Tri-County Joint Municipal Authority; Southwestern Pennsylvania Water Authority; Carmichaels Municipal Authority; Masontown Water Works; East Dunkard Water Association; and the Dunkard Valley Joint Municipal Authority.

First published on October 22, 2008 at 8:46 pm