Dissolved Solids Could Rise Again With Low Fall Precipitation

Pa., W.Va. cooperate on short-term, long-term solutions.

State Journal
11 September 2009
By Pam Kasey

MORGANTOWN -- As the fall dry season approaches, people working on long-term solutions for the health of the Monongahela River are seeking short-term fixes to prevent a repeat of last fall's dissolved solids problem.

Agency representatives and scientists from Pennsylvania and West Virginia met Aug. 24 at California University of Pennsylvania to share information on water quality and flow and to brainstorm.

The two states' environmental protection departments have worked closely since last October and November, when high levels of dissolved solids in the river fouled drinking water for riverside communities in Pennsylvania and impaired the function of some river-cooled industrial equipment.

The dissolved solids -- salts that commonly are referred to as total dissolved solids, or TDS -- come largely from coal mine and oil and gas well drilling operations.

Some sources are known, and some are yet to be identified.

But what is clear is that when TDS is high in West Virginia, the river has less capacity to dilute discharges from coal or gas operations in Pennsylvania.

The working group of agency representatives and scientists that met in California, Pa., discussed a range of approaches.

"We were dealing with it on two levels," said Scott Mandirola, director of West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection's Division of Water and Waste Management, who attended the Aug. 24 meeting.

"We know long-term we've got rule-making that needs to take place in Pennsylvania, potential rule-making in West Virginia and source identification in the watershed," Mandirola said.

"That's going on now -- but that's not going to solve issues this year."

"This year" could hit any week -- in fact, there already was a brief spike in TDS in August during a period of low rainfall.

At that time, John Hanger, Pennsylvania's environment secretary, expressed concern in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that West Virginia environmental officials weren't trying hard enough.

Hanger's statement didn't indicate a breakdown of cooperation between the states, according to Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection Community Relations Coordinator Helen Humphreys.

"The secretary's statement represented frustration over continuation of a problem where the steps necessary have not yet been taken," Humphreys said. "It's important to acknowledge that we cannot solve this problem without West Virginia. With that said, we have work to do here at home."

Cooperation was evident at the Aug. 24 meeting, she said.

"There was, no question, a shared goal of addressing the problem of high TDS levels," she said. "It was clear that everybody in that room cares very much about water quality for their state, and I'm including West Virginia DEP. Their staff is knowledgeable and thoughtful and committed to solving the problem."

Both states have devoted resources to increased water quality sampling, according to Mandirola, and Carnegie Mellon University and West Virginia University are contributing work on data and on source identification.

The meeting helped to ensure that efforts are not duplicated, he said.

While longer-term solutions of rule-making and source identification are in the works, short-term measures may help to minimize the problem this year, Mandirola said.

For example, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which controls releases from the Stonewall Jackson and Tygart dams in the upper Monongahela River basin, could withhold more water now for release during the drier fall.

However, that solution is limited.

"Part of their charge is flood control," he said. "If they don't let out for winter pool soon enough and a hurricane comes up through the gulf to the Appalachian mountains, they won't have enough capacity to hold back the water," he said.

"(The amount of water they can safely withhold before the dry season) might be able to maintain increased flows for five to 10 days but, without precipitation, they will run out fairly quickly."

Next in the works is a public meeting to update residents about the efforts and status of solutions.

That meeting is scheduled for Pennsylvania, according to Humphreys, and it will be scheduled soon for late September or early October.