What is the Right Amount of Aluminum in Our Streams?
The State Journal
24 March 2013
By Pam Kasey
Here's a hard but important question: How do we make sure the
water quality criteria protecting the state's streams and lakes
are neither underprotective nor overprotective?
Underprotective, and they expose aquatic life and sometimes even
people to harm. Overprotective, and they impose unnecessary
treatment costs on pollution discharge permittees.
It's a question that can be pretty technical but that nevertheless
comes before the public every time a change to state water quality
standards is proposed.
Right now, the question involves aluminum. That's because, on
March 12, the secretary of state granted emergency status to a
change the Department of Environmental Protection proposes to the
aluminum criteria, and the proposal now heads to a March 27 public
DEP says the current aluminum criteria, recommended by the
Environmental Protection Agency since 1988, can be overprotective,
and that more recent science shows a way to ease up on industry
while still protecting aquatic life.
Environmentalists fear the proposal would endanger aquatic life.
And a scientist very close to the issue says both may be right —
and that there's a better way still.
This matters. It affects two things that are important to the
state: jobs-providing mines and quarries, and the health of
streams in the regions where they operate.
But how can the non-chemist public participate usefully in the
A little background
Aluminum is the third most abundant element in the Earth's
crust, so it occurs naturally in rocks and soil. Mining and
quarrying can release it into streams.
But too much aluminum in water can be toxic to fish and other
aquatic life — both if there's a little too much on a chronic, or
long-term, basis, or if there's much too much on an acute, or
short-term basis. So DEP places permit limits on discharges to
keep aluminum concentrations below state chronic and acute water
Those criteria currently are two simple numbers: 750
micrograms/liter, or ug/L, for warm water and for acute exposure
in cool water, and 87 ug/L on a chronic basis in cool waters where
sensitive trout live.
DEP's emergency proposal would replace that with site-specific
criteria derived from an equation based on mineral content in the
water. It would be applied anywhere that pH is moderate — between
6.5 and 9.0, which covers most of the state's streams most of the
time — but would not incorporate pH as part of the equation.
Using mineral content, or hardness, to calculate water quality
criteria is an approach the state already uses for lead, nickel
and a few other metals.
The nature of the
DEP wants to reduce treatment costs for pollution discharge
permittees — coal and quarry operations — faster than it could by
going through two-year legislative process, according to DEP
Secretary Randy Huffman.
What are those costs?
Annual treatment for one low-volume discharger comes to $96,000
a year, in an example from Scott Mandirola, director of DEP's
Division of Water and Waste Management. That discharger is
expected to have no treatment cost under the proposed change.
One difficult high-volume discharge is costing another permittee
$336,000 a year.
Secretary of State Natalie Tennant determined that DEP
demonstrated "substantial harm to the public interest," one of the
categories of justification for an emergency rule.
Tennant's decision addresses only whether the proposal qualifies
as an emergency — not the validity and relevance of the science
The proposal, pro and con
The proposed change appears on its face — to non-chemists — to
be almost exclusively a weakening of the criteria.
At levels of hardness below 60 milligrams/L, or mg/L, as in some
of the state's headwater streams and the Cheat and Tygart Valley
rivers, the proposal results in more stringent chronic and acute
But at the higher hardness levels of most of the state's larger
rivers, the equation results in far more lenient criteria. The
chronic standard would rise to about 2,500 ug/L aluminum at a
not-uncommon hardness of 150 mg/L. It goes over 4,000 when
hardness is above 220, a level measured often in, for example, the
Coal River and the West Fork of the Monongahela River, both mining
watersheds. It goes as high as 10,000 ug/L for the acute
That's okay, according to Mandirola, because current science shows
that in harder water, a higher aluminum criterion can be as
protective of aquatic life as the current criteria.
It has to be noted that DEP provided no references to support the
proposed equation, and that no other state uses such an equation
in exactly the way the agency proposes.
An opposing view comes from Carys Mitchelmore, an associate
professor at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental
Science. A report she prepared documenting her opinion that the
proposed change is inappropriate is being submitted by Appalachian
Mountain Advocates and the Sierra Club as comments on the
Unlike for other metals, the data on aluminum toxicity and
hardness are sparse and can even appear contradictory, among the
concerns Mitchelmore enumerated.
Studies so far have been conducted primarily in the laboratory and
may not be representative of field conditions, she wrote. Other
factors, especially pH, affect toxicity. And while DEP cites a
similar equation in use in Colorado, that applies to total
recoverable aluminum — both dissolved and suspended — and West
Virginia's applies only to dissolved aluminum, so Colorado's is
Let's just be up front about this: It's a situation perfectly
designed to activate the environmental community's mistrust of
anything that might benefit the coal industry.
But just because this has the appearance of an adversarial process
— DEP presenting its case, and opponents coming back with their
case — doesn't mean the state is getting the best solution.
Gills and metals
Both sides are right, according to Robert Santore, an
environmental scientist and Environmental Chemistry Section
manager at HDR/HydroQual in Syracuse, N.Y.
They just may not go far enough.
Santore has spent the last decade studying the effects of water
chemistry on the toxicity of metals. He's developed a computer
model that accounts for all of the important water chemistry and
aims to give, as output, site-specific water quality criteria that
are appropriately protective. The EPA has adopted his Biotic
Ligand Model for copper and, he said, is working with it for other
metals as well.
Simple numeric water quality criteria for metals are
oversimplified, Santore said, in part because hardness does have
an effect on toxicity.
"Hard water has two biological effects," he said. Because calcium
and magnesium are plentiful in hard water, it's easier for fish to
take these mineral ions in through their gills to regulate their
blood chemistry. At the same time, the ions bind to gill
membranes, keeping metals from binding to the tissues and
inhibiting biological processes.
"That's why hardness has this effect of making metals less toxic,"
However, a calculation based on hardness alone also is
"The chemical form that aluminum is in is strongly dependent on
the chemical environment that the exposure takes place in,"
Santore said. "If you're a fish exposed to aluminum, the
effect it's going to have on you is different in acidic water, say
pH 6, than it will be at pH 7 or 8."
Dissolved organic matter in the water is important, too, and 30
years of science shows that all of these factors affect metals
toxicity, he said.
The fact is, any water quality criterion for metals that relies on
one number or one factor is too simplistic.
"If you're in the arid west, dealing with hardnesses of 1,500
(mg/L), you wouldn't expect metals to behave the same way they do
in South Carolina, which might have very soft water of 20 (mg/L),"
"And if you're looking at acid mine drainage, where the pH might
be in the 5s, you need a different criterion there than you would
some place where the alkalinity is high."
With this little bit of background, it's easy to see: Behaving as
though water is the same everywhere results in some instances in
underprotection, Santore said, and in overprotection in others.
EPA has long recognized this problem. To address it, the agency
offers an alternative Water Effect Ratio for arriving at
site-specific criteria. Sensitive organisms are exposed to the
metal of concern at various concentrations in water directly from
the site — which takes local hardness, pH and organic matter
physically into account. Lower toxicity in site water justifies a
less stringent site-specific criterion.
Santore's Biotic Ligand Model is designed to provide similar
site-specific results more efficiently.
"We know so much about the chemical effects and the biological
effects of metals that we can do a lot better today than EPA was
able to do in 1988," he said.
"It is definitely time to be rethinking how we approach water
quality criteria for metals and to start incorporating a wider
array of good scientific principles," he added. "Understanding
complexity and dealing with it is our job as scientists and
regulators. The good news is, we can address it."
Back to the question
So: Given this complexity, how can the non-chemist public
participate meaningfully in the public comment period for the
proposed change to the aluminum criteria?
Anyone with just a little chemistry background understands the
fundamental importance of pH, and anyone who knows a little about
water chemistry understands that pH affects the action of metals,
Santore said. At the very least, a participant who feels pH must
be an important factor can make note to DEP that its effects
should be taken into account.
If Santore were commenting, he said he would note that the Biotic
Ligand Model that takes all of the important water chemistry into
account is available for free for regulators to download and that
California, Colorado and some other states have adopted its use as
an alternative for some metals criteria.
The public hearing on the emergency rule is scheduled for 6
p.m. on March 27 at DEP's offices in Charleston.
Comments may be e-mailed through that time to email@example.com.
Afterward, "Unless the comments lead the agency to refrain from
proceeding with the rule, the next step after the hearing is to
submit the rule change to the EPA for review and approval," said
DEP spokesperson Kathy Cosco.
EPA Region 3 in Philadelphia will have 60 days to approve or 90
days to disapprove the revision. If approved, the change to the
water quality criteria would be in effect, according to the
practice for emergency rules, for up to 15 months.
For a permanent revision of the criteria, the changes would be
included in the 2014 Triennial Review of water quality standards
for legislative and EPA approval.