Science Goes a ‘Long Way’ to Improve Quality of Mon

Morgantown Dominion Post
18 January 2015

Thanks in part to WVU water experts, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has removed the Monongahela River from a list of “impaired” Pennsylvania waterways.

The river was first designated as “impaired” by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) in 2010 due to sulfate contamination. While sulfate generally does not make water unsafe for humans, it can cause a bad taste and interfere with industrial processes that require purer water.

The West Virginia Water Research Institute at WVU, led by Director Paul Ziemkiewicz, launched a study of the Mon River and its major tributaries in 2009.

From that research, the Institute helped develop a novel approach that combined water science with stakeholder collaboration to restore the river in less time than a traditional regulatory process might have taken.

“We were able to gather the data, diagnose the problem and recommend a treatment strategy for the Mon that produced results,” Ziemkiewicz said.

Grants from the Colcom Foundation and the U.S. Geological Survey aided the Institute’s endeavors, creating a voluntary, science-based, non-regulatory, watershed-wide program to wash away the sulfate problem.

All streams dissolve minerals and other natural compounds called salts. Therefore, small amounts of dissolved salts are to be expected. Too much, though, causes problems for humans, plants, animals and industrial processes that use water.

In 2008, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in Pittsburgh and water suppliers and users along the Mon River reported very high salt levels in the river.

Because of that, the West Virginia Water Research Institute began its study.

Ziemkiewicz said the Institute learned that federal and state agencies monitoring the river had programs, which while useful, could not answer three key questions:

Which salts were causing the problem?

Where were they coming from?

How could they be controlled?
The U.S. Geological Survey’s Water Institutes Program funded initial monitoring efforts. Subsequent funding from the Colcom Foundation established the Three Rivers Quest, a water quality monitoring and reporting program for the Mon, Allegheny and Ohio rivers.

Institute staff, including WVU students in environmental studies programs, has monitored water quality of the Mon and its major tributaries every two weeks since July 2009. Data collected through Three Rivers Quest is available on its website.

Ziemkiewicz noted that from December through July, the river flow runs high, diluting salts well below levels of concern. However, from August through November, the water flows are lower and spikes in sulfate and TDS can occur.

“We met with the coal industry along the Mon and asked them to tell us how much they were pumping from each of their treatment plants and what their TDS concentrations were,” Ziemkiewicz said. “Within a couple of weeks, we had the data and I supplied them with a computer program that showed how much they could discharge from each treatment plant based on the flow in the Mon River that day."

Industry took Ziemkiewicz’s advice and began discharge management in January 2010. Since then, the levels of both sulfate and TDS have met EPA standards in the Mon River.

In December, the EPA approved the Pennsylvania DEP’s report that the river’s “in-stream level of sulfates now meets Pennsylvania’s water quality standards.”

While not the answer to every water quality problem, managing water quality on a watershed basis rather than managing individual discharges has advantages.

“The beauty is that this is an elegant, co-operative approach for protecting a big river like the Mon. In resource-rich states like West Virginia and Pennsylvania, it shows how we can achieve better results when people come together to resolve problems.

“A little science can go a long way.”