Water from Mon River Loaded with 'Particles'

The Valley Independent, Monessen, PA
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.

The Department of Environmental Protection is investigating the source of unusually high levels of total dissolved solids, or TDS, detected at points along approximately 70 stream miles on the Monongahela River beginning at the West Virginia border to the confluence with the Youghiogheny River.

Here's a list of local public water agencies that draw raw water from the Monongahela River in the affected area: Brownsville plant of Pennsylvania-American Water Company, Newell Municipal Authority, Washington Township Municipal Authority, Belle Vernon Municipal Authority, and the Authority of the Borough of Charleroi.

The contamination does not affect the drinking water supplied by the Municipal Authority of Westmoreland County, which serves areas in the Mon Valley.

MAWC's water supplies are taken from the Youghiogheny River in McKeesport and Connellsville, according to the authority's Web site.

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.

Abandoned mine drainage has been discharging to the Monongahela at a fairly constant rate for decades, the DEP stated. Increases in conventional, non-conventional and coal bed methane drilling have led to greater volumes of drilling wastewater being delivered to sewage treatment plants. Mine drainage and gas well drilling wastewater contain high concentrations of TDS.

The DEP is advising people concerned about their water to switch to bottled water for drinking and cooking until the problem is corrected.

Water supply treatment plants are not equipped to remove TDS from the raw water. DEP staff is sampling the finished water from water supplies along the Monongahela River and expects results within one week. The DEP is working with these water suppliers in the affected area.

The DEP has said it will also step up monitoring and compliance activities and coordinate its efforts with the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission in the Monongahela River basin area.

DEP is also consulting with the Army Corps of Engineers to investigate if supplemental discharges of water from several dams will aid with diluting the TDS. The department also will continue to monitor the situation closely and pursue with West Virginia options available to reduce TDS levels at the border.

Brian Bowling can be reached at bbowling@tribweb.com or 412-320-7910.