Mon Testing Expands to Allegheny, Ohio Rivers

Pittsburgh Tribune-Review
4 December 2012
By Timothy Puko

A water testing program that helped limit mine pollution’s impact in the long-troubled Monongahela River basin is expanding to the Allegheny and Ohio rivers, where some hope it can help guard drinking water sources.

The West Virginia Water Research Institute will expand its monitoring program to all the Three Rivers to build a public database with pollution levels and environmental conditions updated twice a month. Having monitored the Mon for more than three years, the rechristened Three Rivers QUEST takes its first demonstration sampling of the Ohio and the Allegheny near the Point at 1 p.m. Tuesday.

The move is one of several new research efforts tracking the region’s recent shale gas drilling boom. Although some research, state intervention and cooperation from drillers seem to have cut pollution in the Mon basin, the Allegheny struggles with an increase in the salt bromide, complicating efforts to get safe drinking water to about 250,000 people in the Pittsburgh area.

“Anything that anyone does in terms of source water protection in the Allegheny is appreciated,” Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority spokeswoman Melissa Rubin said, noting that authority researchers benefited from working with Three Rivers QUEST researchers before. The authority draws all its water from the Allegheny.

Bromide occurs naturally, commonly appearing during deep shale drilling from salty underground deposits. It can combine with chlorine during water treatment to form carcinogens.

The program’s biggest success on the Mon was in helping coordinate waste dumps from mine operators on the river’s tributaries, institute director Paul Ziemkiewicz said. Once their sampling showed how and when releases affected the tributaries, he could help companies time their releases for when high-flow conditions could absorb them, he said.

With good data on the Ohio and Allegheny rivers and outreach efforts from researchers, industrial operators could do the same on those rivers if necessary, he added.

“It’s not a particularly hard thing to do,” said Ziemkiewicz, whose program Consol Energy Inc. has helped fund. Colcom Foundation, which supports environmental projects, will fund the expansion. “If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it. What we’re really looking for are managed options to maintain river quality.”

Drinking water plants that supply Pittsburgh have used new cleaning techniques or have tried to get the carcinogenic byproducts of bromide to evaporate from the water. Those programs can be expensive, PWSA researchers say.

Researchers at the PWSA would like to stop the sources, which their samples have suggested are several plants that treat industrial wastewater. But the state, which has authority, won’t intervene because the amounts of bromide and other solids throughout the Allegheny don’t exceed legal safety levels, said John Poister, spokesman for the Department of Environmental Protection in Pittsburgh.

Bromide can be a tricky pollutant to track, and constant monitoring from Three Rivers QUEST could help better define and explain the problem, eventually leading to better, more cost-effective solutions, Ziemkiewicz said. A system with major-university support can do the specialized testing to figure out what pollution comes from new industry such as gas drilling and old industry such as mining and mills, said Bruce Dickson of the Iron Furnace Chapter of Trout Unlimited.

“It’s going to be a one-of-a-kind effort on a very broad, broad scale,” said Dickson, a Forest County resident and the group’s Marcellus shale coordinator. “It’d be great if we found nothing and had nothing to worry about. But we’re not going to know that until we collect these samples.”

Timothy Puko is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7991 or