Mon River Pollution Perhaps Linked to Gas Drilling Vanishing
8 November 2012
By The Associated Press
PITTSBURGH -- Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University say a
water quality problem in the Monongahela River that may have been
linked to Marcellus Shale natural gas drilling is going away.
Jeanne VanBriesen said Thursday that preliminary data from tests
this year showed that levels of salty bromides in the river have
declined significantly when compared to 2010 and 2011. In many
cases the bromides were at undetectable levels this year, and in
general they returned to normal levels.
"These are very nice, low bromide levels, where we would like them
to be,'' VanBriesen said of the 2012 test results, which were
presented at a water quality conference in Pittsburgh.
VanBriesen said the decline appears to coincide with a voluntary
ban on disposing gas drilling wastewater that took effect in the
spring of 2011. The wastewater contains large amounts of naturally
occurring, ultra-salty bromides, and drillers had been taking
millions of barrels of it to conventional wastewater treatment
plants that discharge into the Monongahela River.
But in early 2011, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental
Protection called on drillers to voluntarily stop using riverside
plants to get rid of the wastewater, and major companies and
industry groups agreed to the request.
The state's request was made after VanBriesen and other
researchers presented evidence that the discharges were altering
river chemistry in a way that had the potential to affect drinking
water, and operators of municipal water supplies grew concerned.
Although not considered a pollutant by themselves, the bromides
combine with the chlorine used in water treatment to produce
compounds that can threaten public health, and levels had soared
in 2009 and 2010. Bromide levels in the river declined somewhat in
2011, but not enough for researchers to say that the river had
returned to normal levels.
Another researcher at the conference said other Monongahela River
water quality trends have been positive, too.
Rose Reilly, a biologist at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, has
been doing conductivity tests on the Monongahela River. That helps
scientists estimate the amount of dissolved material in the water,
and lower readings are better.
"There is a general downward trend'' in conductivity levels for
2012, Reilly said. "That's good news.''
Steve Forde, a spokesman for the Marcellus Shale Coalition, an
industry group, said its members had "been committed from the very
outset'' to complying with the state request to stop discharging
wastewater at regular treatment plants. Now, most of the brine is
either recycled or sent to deep underground wells for disposal.
Still, VanBriesen and Reilly cautioned that the Monongahela River
is still far from being a pristine waterway. Coal-fired power
plants and old flooded coal mines also discharge water into the
Monongahela River that can contain bromides and other pollutants,
and many other industries are based in the region.
The Marcellus Shale lies under parts of Pennsylvania, New York,
Ohio, West Virginia and Maryland. The gas drilling procedure
hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, has made it possible to tap
into deep reserves of oil and gas but has raised concerns about
pollution. Large volumes of water, along with sand and hazardous
chemicals, are injected underground to break rock apart and free
the oil and gas.
Regulators contend that water and air pollution problems are rare,
but environmental groups and some scientists say there hasn't been
enough research on those issues. The industry and many federal and
state officials say the practice is safe when done properly.