WVU researchers’ novel strategies restores the Monongahela River

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January 15, 2015 by NRCCE News

U.S. EPA reports the Mon is “no longer impaired by sulfates”
Morgantown, W.Va.– In December 2010, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (PADEP) declared the Monongahela River impaired due to sulfate contained in a variety of salts in the water. While sulfate generally does not make water unsafe for humans, it can make it unfit due to the bad taste and can interfere with industrial processes that require purer water.

Melissa O’Neal, manager of the Three Rivers Quest program, collecting GPS coordinates along the bank of the Cheat River in September 2010 for water testing.

Melissa O’Neal, manager of the Three Rivers Quest program, collecting GPS coordinates along the bank of the Cheat River in 2010. The coordinates prove locations of sample collection points. Samples were collected every two weeks and data is provided via the 3RQ data map website (www.3RiversQuest.com).

A novel problem-solving approach spearheaded by the West Virginia Water Research Institute (WVWRI) at West Virginia University combined water science with stakeholder collaboration to restore the river in less time than a traditional regulatory process might have taken.

WVWRI received grants from the Colcom Foundation and the U.S. Geological Survey to create of a voluntary, science-based, non-regulatory, watershed-wide program which attacked the Mon River’s sulfate problem. As a result, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recently approved PADEP’s decision to remove the Monongahela River from the “impaired for potable water use” listing. 

Salts and Drinking Water
All streams dissolve minerals and other natural compounds called salts. A small amount of a variety of dissolved salts are to be expected. Too much, though, causes problems not only for humans, plants and animals but also for many industrial processes that use water.

In the summer of 2008 reports were coming in from water suppliers and users along the Monongahela River that salt levels in the river were spiking to very high levels.  Rose Reilly of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in Pittsburgh noted that data collected by the agency confirmed these reports.

Paul Ziemkiewicz, WVWRI director

“In about six months, we were able to gather the data, diagnose the problem, and recommend a treatment strategy for the Mon that produced results,” said Dr. Paul Ziemkiewicz, WVWRI director.

In the lower Mon River, specific conductivity and TDS levels—measures of water quality—were nearly twice as high as those documented during the Corps’ entire 1969-2008 monitoring period, including the period prior to the mid-1970s when untreated mine drainage and municipal and industrial pollution were so severe that fish could not live in the Monongahela River.

To get a handle on the problem, Dr. Paul Ziemkiewicz, Director of the West Virginia Water Research Institute at West Virginia University, began a study in July 2009 of the Mon and its major tributaries.  “We started out by calling a meeting of the major Federal and state agencies who were monitoring the river but we learned that their programs, while useful, could not answer the three key questions:  Which salts were causing the problem?  Where were they coming from?  And how could we control them?”

Initial monitoring efforts were funded by the U.S. Geological Survey’s Water Institutes Program and subsequent funding was obtained from the Colcom Foundation to establish the Three Rivers Quest (3RQ) Program.

Three Rivers Quest (3RQ) Program
WVWRI staff, including WVU graduate and undergraduate students in environmental studies programs, have been monitoring water quality of the Mon and its major tributaries every two weeks since July 2009.

The program expanded beyond the Mon River and now includes partnerships with Duquesne University, Wheeling Jesuit University, Trout Unlimited, various conservation agencies, and numerous watershed groups throughout the upper Ohio River basin which includes the Allegheny, Monongahela, and Ohio rivers.

The 3RQ program shares the data collected with the public on their website, www.3riversquest.org.

Jason Fillhart recording field reading along the Tygart as part of the 3 Rivers Quest program’s bi-weekly monitoring.  Analytical grab samples are collected and lab analyzed in addition to the collection of field readings using a YSI multi-probe meter.

Jason Fillhart of the West Virginia Water Research Institute recording field readings along the Tygart as part of the 3RQ’s bi-weekly monitoring.  Water samples are collected and lab analyzed in addition to the collection of field readings using a YSI multi-probe meter. (Photo by Glen Waldron.)

By December 2009 it became clear that calcium sulfate was the dominant salt and that it was coming from underground coal mines where water was being pumped out and treated before being discharged into nearby streams. The metals in the mine water were removed, but not the sulfates.

Calcium sulfate is the key component of gypsum or plaster of Paris and is not toxic at the concentrations detected in the river but it affects hardness and taste.  It is also extremely expensive to remove from water.

“Calcium sulfate is common in mine water so we’d identified the source.  We also knew that controlling calcium sulfate would control TDS,” said Ziemkiewicz.

“We found that high TDS was strictly seasonal.  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 when flow dropped below 1,500 cubic feet per second we’d start seeing spikes in sulfate and TDS.  The historical record indicated that those conditions occurred about 58 days per year.

Jason Fillhart of the West Virginia Water Research Institute using a YSI multi-probe meter to collect field readings of pH, temperature and conductivity downstream of the Cheat River dam. (Photo by Glen Waldron.)

Jason Fillhart using a YSI multi-probe meter to collect field readings of pH, temperature and conductivity downstream of the Cheat River dam. (Photo by Glen Waldron.)

“So, 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.  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.

“These are huge, underground mines, between 10 to 20 square miles. The worked out parts of the mine could be used to store water until the river conditions were right.  The idea was that by managing the release of treated mine water to coincide with periods when the river was high, we could solve the sulfate and TDS problem.”

It worked.

Discharge Management 
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.

Ziemkiewicz points out that discharge management only works because industry buys into the process and regular river monitoring validates the outcome.  “The coal industry, in my experience, has always been receptive to intelligent solutions to water issues,” he said.

Convincing the regulatory agencies and the public that the strategy works required accountability and transparency. A grant from the Colcom Foundation allows the WVWRI’s Three Rivers QUEST scientists to sample the river and its major tributaries every two weeks and put the results on WVWRI’s website where anyone can access the information.

Thanks to Colcom Foundation’s continued support for 3RQ, a wide array of water quality issues on the Monongahela, Allegheny, and Ohio rivers can be studied and solved. Solving the sulfate problem is a prime example of 3RQ’s success, said Ziemkiewicz.

Carol Zagrocki of the Colcom Foundation agreed.  “The accomplishments of the program are a tribute to the unique collaborations among dedicated scientists, academics, and community volunteers striving to improve the health of our rivers and streams, as well as our quality of life.”

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

Cheat River by Melissa O’Neal 2014 October 01

A beautiful November day on the Monongahela River 2012.  Photo Melissa O’Neal.

Photo Melissa O’Neal

Improvement is almost immediate. “In about six months, we were able to gather the data, diagnose the problem, and recommend a treatment strategy for the Mon that produced results,” said Ziemkiewicz.

“Modest financial investment results in major improvements. We solved the sulfate and TDS problem without costing any miners their jobs or raising anyone’s electricity or water rates.

“And the results meet the intent of the Federal Clean Water Act which is to prevent pollution while restoring polluted waterways without adding any new regulations.”

“The beauty is that this is an elegant, co-operative approach for protecting a big river like the Mon,” said Ziemkiewicz. “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.”

-NRCCE-

CONTACT: Paul Ziemkiewicz;  West Virginia Water Research Institute 304.293.6958; Paul.Ziemkiewicz@mail.wvu.edu

See also: WVUToday

The West Virginia Water Research Institute is a program of the WVU National Research Center for Coal and Energy.