WVU Project Helping to Control Mon River Pollution

Charleston Gazette
19 February 2011
By The Associated Press

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. (AP) - Researchers at West Virginia University say they've developed a voluntary, non-regulatory system that lets coal companies help limit the amount of total dissolved solids in the Monongahela River.

Paul Ziemkiewicz, director of WVU's Water Research Institute, has been working since 2009 on a system to allow 14 coal mine pumping stations to discharge wastewater without increasing pollution.

Although high levels of TDS have not been labeled a threat to human health, they can affect the taste and smell and drinking water.

After TDS levels above the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's recommendation were recorded in the river in 2008, Ziemkiewicz began a monitoring program to study the problem. The main stem of the Mon was sampled at four stations from McKeesport, Pa., to just above the Morgantown Utility Board water intake in Morgantown.

Ziemkiewicz said that in some tributaries, more than half the salt was sodium chloride, characteristic of gas wells.

Other creeks were affected by sodium and calcium sulfate, which are associated with coal mining.

But Ziemkiewicz discovered the problem was timing: When water flow is low, from July through November, the salt-laden discharge raises TDS concentrations. If the wastewater is pumped out when river flow is high, from December through June, the pollution is effectively diluted "well below levels of concern."

Companies can monitor flow through gauges linked to a U.S. Geological Survey website and time their discharges accordingly.

Since the program began in January 2010, Ziemkiewicz said, there's been no rise in total dissolved solids, and peak salt concentrations have dropped at all four stations.

"This approach controls TDS without costing any miners their jobs or raising anyone's electricity or sewage rates," he said. "A little science goes a long way."

However, "There is still a lot of TDS from undocumented sources in the Mon," he said, "and we need to find out more about them in order to protect drinking water supplies and other river users."