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,”
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
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
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
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.”