Mon Drinking Water Loaded with Particles

Pittsburgh Tribune Review
24 October 2008
By Brian Bowling

Getting rainfall in fewer but larger batches has left Western Pennsylvania with chunkier-than-usual drinking water, state and federal officials said Thursday.

The concentration of tiny organic and inorganic particles in the Monongahela River exceeds state and federal limits. The particles don't represent a public health threat, but they can affect the taste and smell of the water and speed up the corrosion of pipes and other machinery that come into contact with the water, said Teresa Candori, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Environmental Protection.

Pennsylvania is working with West Virginia to reduce the concentration, she said.

"The main thing that has changed is that the water coming into Pennsylvania is different," Candori said.

State and federal law limit the concentration of total dissolved solids to 500 parts per million. DEP samples from the Mon have turned up concentrations as high as 852 parts per million.

The particles are so small they can't be filtered out, and so light they won't settle out of the water. They come from pipe discharges at sewage plants and industrial facilities, as well as from water carrying nitrates and other pollutants from yards and farms.

The particles include a wide variety of chemicals including carbonates, chlorides, nitrates, salts and other minerals.

Because the material can't be filtered out, the main way to reduce concentration is by diluting them, but doing so requires water that the Mon doesn't have.

Its flow is below the lowest seven-day average recorded in the past 10 years, Candori said. Two weeks ago, the flow was more than twice that seven-day average.

"The flow is usually low this time of year, but we are unusually low for this time of year," she said.

John Wirts, program manager of watershed assessment for the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection, said his agency last tested the Mon in August and didn't get any unusual readings. Inspectors will test the water again next week, he said.

"I can't verify anything at this point," Wirts said.

On the other hand, he said many of the streams feeding the river, which starts near Fairmont, W.Va., have flows between 10 and 50 percent of what's normal for this time of year.

Lee Hendricks, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Moon, said the total precipitation for the year is near normal, but most of the rain since June has fallen on only about 20 different days. That hasn't replenished the area's water systems the way rain normally would, he said.

"The total looks good, but the reality is that we got it in chunks," Hendricks said.

Pennsylvania's DEP has ordered sewage plants to reduce how much mineral-laden wastewater they handle from gas-well drilling operations until the concentration of solids in the Mon returns to normal.

Candori said, however, the DEP doesn't consider the wastewater to be the main cause of the problem. "That's just the one thing we can do immediately," she said.

Gary Lobaugh, spokesman for Pennsylvania American Water, said the utility has received some complaints about a bitter or salty taste and is reiterating the DEP's advice that people concerned about their water should switch to bottled water for drinking and cooking until the problem is corrected.

Beyond that, there' s not much the utility can do since the contaminants can't be filtered out, he said. About 86,000 people live in the affected area -- which covers Washington County, western Fayette County and southern Allegheny County.

The utility's Pittsburgh operation draws water from the Mon after it mixes with the Youghiogheny River, which has had enough water to dilute the solids to below the 500 parts per million limit, Lobaugh said.

Brian Bowling can be reached at or 412-320-7910.