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Monongahela River

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Our look at the

Since the increase of Marcellus Shale gas drilling in West Virginia and Pennsylvania, one river has felt most of the effects -- the Monongahela River -- which is known to residents simply as "The Mon." As steelmaking and other heavy industries left the banks of the Monongahela River toward the end of the 20th Century, water quality improved enough that Pittsburgh hosted the 2005 BassMaster competition. Things were looking up for The Mon.


More water protection from Marcellus shale suggested for Pennsylvania

April 16, 2012 - (AP) A former top environmental official says Pennsylvania's successful efforts to keep Marcellus Shale wastewater away from drinking water supplies should be extended to other oil and gas drillers. "It's the same industry. It is the same contaminants. And the goal should be the same," said George Jugovic Jr., former southwest regional director of the Department of Environmental Protection and president of PennFuture, an environmental group.

An Associated Press analysis of state data found that in the second half of 2011, about 1.86 million barrels — or about 78 million gallons — of drilling wastewater from conventional oil and gas wells were still being sent to treatment plants that discharge into rivers.  Source: TRIBLive

“The AP found that 78 million gallons of oil and gas wastewater were still being taken to Pa. treatment plants in the last half of 2011 — about 33 percent less than the Marcellus quantity that was raising concerns in 2010, but still a substantial amount. If that rate continues, the conventional wells will send about 150 million gallons of the wastewater to treatment plants that discharge into rivers this year.”


Bromide levels in Mon River rose in 2010, remain high

By Don Hopey
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
November 4, 2011

November 4, 2011 - Bromide levels rose in the Monongahela River in 2010 and remain elevated, possibly because of discharges of wastewater from Marcellus Shale drilling or electric power plants. Ms. VanBriesen, who is also director of CMU's Center for Water Quality in Urban Environmental Systems, said the river's bromide levels are much higher than what would be expected in similar inland waterways and should be reduced to ensure that public drinking water supplies remain safe.

Bromides are nontoxic salt compounds, but they react with disinfectants used by municipal water treatment plants to form brominated trihalomethanes, also known at THMs, which are volatile organic liquid compounds that become part of the drinking water. Studies show a link between ingestion of THMs and several types of cancer and birth defects.



Private firms poised to treat wastewater

By Joe Napsha
Pittsburgh Tribune-Review
May 19, 2011

Companies whose specialty is treating wastewater are hoping for a surge of business after today's deadline for natural gas drillers to voluntarily stop sending their toxic flowback from hydraulic fracturing to publicly owned treatment plants.

"The diluters and the dumpers (of drilling wastewater) are done," David Grottenthaler said, referring to an earlier practice of relying on streams and rivers to dilute metals and salts in drilling wastewater that flows back to the surface after fracturing Marcellus shale that holds natural gas deep underground.


Wastewater Recycling No Cure-All in Gas Process

Ian Urbina
March 1, 2011
The New York Times

In a move hailed by industry as a major turning point, drilling companies started reusing and recycling the wastewater. “Water recycling is a win-win,” one drilling company, Range Resources, says on its Web site. “It reduces freshwater demand and eliminates the need to dispose of the water.”

State and company records show that in the year and a half that ended in December 2010, well operators reported recycling at least 320 million gallons. But at least 260 million gallons of wastewater (38%) were sent to plants that discharge their treated waste into rivers, out of a total of more than 680 million gallons of wastewater produced, according to state data posted Tuesday. Complete story


Mon River's unsafe levels of Bromide prompt probe

By Tim Puko
September 17, 2010

State environmental investigators are trying to determine the source of a chemical that Carnegie Mellon University researchers say is responsible for carcinogens in drinking water from the Monongahela River.
In July and August, Jeanne VanBriesen's research team found bromide combined at higher levels than usual with sanitizing chemicals in drinking water from the Mon, creating carcinogenic byproducts. If the trend continues, levels of carcinogens could remain elevated for months, violating federal safe drinking water standards, she said.
Bromide is found naturally in seawater and underground rock formations. If bromide is in the river water when the water is chlorinated, it can combine with chlorine to create a disinfectant byproduct, VanBriesen said. Those byproducts can cause cancer, but they are common in drinking water in trace amounts. Federal regulations require they be kept at minimal levels. (PittsburghLive)

Webmaster's note: Marcellus Shale is from an ancient ocean full of seawater. This article states: "Bromide is found naturally in seawater and underground rock formations." Bingo!



Then fracking changed the Monongahela River

Shale gas drilling, with its high volume slickwater hydraulic fracturing process, began early in the 21st Century and began to "tip the balance" of existing river water conditions. This was not only an important development for fish and aquatic life, but also the millions of Pittsburgh area residents who get their tap water from water treatment plants located along the Mon.
These conditions first became obvious in late-2008 when water showed over the limit TDS (total dissolved solid) levels. Residents noticed the bad taste and smell of their drinking water, as well as spotted dishes coming out of their dishwashers. Plumbers began noticing black deposits in plumbing fixtures.


The Monongahela River flows 128 miles from Fairmont West Virginia to Pittsburgh Pennsylvania and is one of very few US rivers that flows north. The Native American word 'Mechmenawungihilla' or 'Monongahela' means "falling banks" and refers to its unstable river banks.

When high-TDS water is chlorinated it creates trihalomethanes (THM or THMM) which water customers are told is safe to drink. However, one water expert warned of health dangers when these same chemicals in the water "gas off" and get inhaled while someone is taking a hot shower or bath.
This high-TDS situation is created by a couple factors:
1) low river flow in the Mon River and
2) the dumping and run-off of drilling brine into the Mon
Low river flow occurs primarily during drought periods. Fall 2008 was very dry with a Pennsylvania drought warning eventually being issued on November 7th. This low water condition was aggravated by drillers taking free water out of local streams and watersheds to provide the millions of gallons of water required to frack (correct spelling is 'frac' which is short for 'frack' or fracture) each Marcellus Shale gas well. There are environmental regulations concerning the 'dewatering' of streams, but official enforcement is 'lax to non-existent' in most southwestern Pennsylvania waterways. Volunteers have recently shouldered the load, with their tests revealing multiple streams with high levels of bromides, as of late-2011.
The dumping of drilling brine into Pittsburgh tap water sources became a serious issue when ill-equipped waste treatment plants were accepting all the drilling wastewater they could get. The extra business improved their bottom lines, however, most (all?) were not equipped to handle industrial grade wastewater and much of the processing was incomplete. Even well-equipped treatment plants have difficulty removing salts from water, so they count on dilution as the key to solving a high-TDS problem. The more drilling brine is watered-down, as the story goes, the closer the water will come to having acceptable 'quality' levels.


"In just the Monongahela River's watershed, between 612,000 and 2 million gallons per day of waste fracking fluid is discharged by 13 public and commercial water treatment facilities after limited treatment.  At the lower treatment amount, Dr. Volz said, the water daily discharges contain 824,825 pounds of total dissolved solids, 15,000 pounds of barium, 16,737 pounds of strontium and 486,812 pounds of chloride."

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
August 28, 2010

Pennsylvania finally caught up with the dumping end of this equation, with the DEP limiting how much wastewater facilities could accept, and which ones could accept it. This created some temporary improvements in early 2009, but dry weather conditions in late Spring and early summer began triggering 'over the limit' announcements by various water treatment authorities once again. Some facilities hired consultants to work on their problem, and ended up switching their public water purification systems away from chlorine to chloramine, to eliminate some of their over-limit  trihalomethane problem.

In early 2011, new attention was placed on the radioactive contaminants present in gas drilling wastewater from a soluble form of radium known as Ra-226. New concerns were raised about the potential health effects to those drinking tapwater drawn from the Monongahela River.
So let's take a look at some photos of the Monongahela River as it flows north from West Virginia toward Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Monongahela River flowing past West Virginia University in Morgantown
Confluence of the Monongahela River and Cheat River at Point Marion, Pa
Bridges crossing the Mon near Pittsburgh's South Side
Looking down the Mon toward its confluence with the Allegheny River at The Point in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The Monongahela River joins the Allegheny River to form the Ohio River, hence the name "Three Rivers Stadium" for the first Steelers/Pirates stadium near the confluence of these three rivers.


Power Plant Ordered to Stop Polluting the Monongahela River

Monongahela River TDS, Chloride, and Sulfate Sampling Results

Upper Monongahela River Association, Inc.


DEP sets drilling rules for water protection

August 26, 2010
By Scott Beveridge

Pennsylvania has implemented new regulations on the natural gas drilling industry ahead of schedule to protect drinking water supplies and aquatic life from wastewater leaving drilling sites.

The state Department of Environmental Protection has imposed new wastewater treatment standards to reduce what are known as total dissolved solids and the amount of chlorides in water released from sites where companies are drilling into the Marcellus Shale field.

The new rules also prohibit such drilling within a 150-foot buffer zone around a high-quality stream, making this the strongest legal protection of water in the state's history, according to a DEP news release.

[25 PA. CODE CH. 95]
Wastewater Treatment Requirements
[39 Pa.B. 6467]

PA Bulletin, Doc. No. 09-2065

[Saturday, November 7, 2009]

The Environmental Quality Board (Board) proposes to amend 25 Pa. Code Chapter 95 (relating to Wastewater Treatment Requirements). The proposed amendments include the elimination of a redundant provision, the recognition of applicable TMDL requirements, and the establishment of new effluent standards for new sources of wastewaters containing high Total Dissolved Solids (TDS) concentrations.

The proposal was adopted by the Board at its meeting of August 18, 2009.

 Code of 1929 (71 P. S. §§ 510-7 and 510-20).

D. Background and Purpose

Total dissolved solids (TDS) is comprised of inorganic salts, organic matter and other dissolved materials in water. They can be naturally present in water or the result of runoff, mining or industrial or municipal treatment of water. TDS contain minerals and organic molecules that provide benefits such as nutrients, but also may contain contaminants such as toxic metals and organic pollutants. However, the benefits noted are when considered in moderation, which is likely not the case in a high TDS discharge. The concentration and composition of TDS in natural waters is determined by the geology of the drainage, atmospheric precipitation and the water balance (evaporation/precipitation).

TDS causes toxicity to water bodies through increases in salinity, changes in the ionic composition of the water, and toxicity of individual ions. The composition of specific ions determines toxicity of elevated TDS in natural waters. Also, as the hardness increases, TDS toxicity may decrease. The major concern associated with high TDS concentrations relates to direct effects of increased salinity on the health of aquatic organisms.

Water quality analyses performed for the major watersheds of this Commonwealth to date, show that many of the rivers and streams of this Commonwealth have a very limited ability to assimilate additional TDS, sulfates and chlorides. This phenomenon was most evident during the fall of 2008, when actual water quality issues related to these parameters emerged in the Monongahela River basin. While river flows reached seasonal lows, the concentrations of TDS and sulfates in the river increased to historic highs, exceeding the water quality standards at all of the 17 Potable Water Supply intakes from the border with West Virginia to Pittsburgh. Exceedances of water quality standards for TDS and sulfate persisted in the river through November and December of 2008. Elevated chloride levels were observed on at least one major tributary—South Fork Tenmile Creek—and for the first time, elevated bromide levels were observed in these streams.

During this period, several environmental agencies performed studies on the effects of TDS, sulfate and chloride discharges on the Monongahela and some of its tributaries. A study conducted by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Department and the Allegheny County Health Department (ACHD) also identified bromides as a key parameter of concern in these waters. The study concluded that a high percentage of the Disinfection By-Products (DBPs) being formed in the drinking water systems were brominated DBPs, which pose a greater health risk than chlorinated DBPs; and, subsequent formation of brominated DBPs increases overall DBP concentrations, specifically trihalomethanes (THMs). The study also concluded that based on the speciation there appears to be a strong correlation between THM formation and elevated source water bromide concentrations in the Monongahela River. As a result, the 17 potable water supply intakes on the Monongahela River are subject to higher levels of the more toxic brominated DBPs, creating increased risks of bladder cancer to their consumers.

Several studies on the potential impacts to aquatic life from these large TDS discharges were also conducted on major tributaries flowing into the Monongahela River in Greene County, PA. Each of these studies documents the adverse effects of discharges of TDS, sulfates and chlorides on the aquatic communities in these receiving streams. The former concludes that there is a high abundance of halophilic (salt-loving) organisms downstream from the discharges of TDS and chlorides and a clear transition of fresh water organisms to brackish water organisms in the receiving stream from points above the discharge to points below. It is evident from this study that increases in salinity have caused a shift in biotic communities.

The Monongahela River Watershed is being adversely impacted by TDS discharges and many points in the watershed are already impaired, with TDS, sulfates and chlorides as the cause.

Although the Monongahela has received the most attention, it is not an anomalous situation. The Department has studied the results of stream monitoring and has conducted an analysis on the water quality of the Beaver River in western Pennsylvania. These results show upward trends in TDS concentrations. The Department has also conducted similar studies on the Shenango and Neshannock Rivers, with similar upward trends in TDS concentrations.

In addition, watershed analyses conducted by the Department of the West Branch of the Susquehanna River and the Moshannon River Watersheds have documented that they are also severely limited in the capacity to assimilate new loads of TDS and sulfates. The Department has received several permit applications in these areas where the permits will not be able to be issued with limits greater than the water quality standards due to the high background concentrations of TDS.

The surveys, analyses and studies referenced establish that the extent of existing and potential pollution from TDS, sulfates and chlorides is widespread. The Department is constrained from approving any significant portion of the pending proposals and applications for new sources of discharge high-TDS wastewater that include sulfates and chlorides, and still protect the quality of streams in this Commonwealth.

The existing practice for high TDS wastewaters is the removal of heavy metals, but currently no treatment exists for TDS, sulfates and chlorides, other than dilution. As documented by the rising levels of TDS in the waters of this Commonwealth, dilution can no longer be considered adequate treatment for high TDS wastewaters.

The Clean Streams Law (35 P. S. §§ 691.1—691.1001) delegates the authority to preserve and improve the purity of its waters and develop remedies to purify those waters currently polluted to the Department, in the form of adopting rules and regulations as necessary to accomplish these tasks.

The Department's ''Permitting Strategy for High Total Dissolved Solids (TDS) Wastewater Discharges'' (April 11, 2009) outlines the foundation and scientific rationale for promulgation of such rules and regulations necessary to address the existing and potential pollution of this Commonwealth's waters from large sources of TDS, sulfates and chlorides. This approach relies upon the basic water quality management premise that discharges of these pollutants must be managed through permit limitations required by the more stringent of treatment-based or water quality-based standards.

The goal of this permitting strategy is that by January 1, 2011, new sources of High-TDS wastewaters will be prohibited from this Commonwealth's waters. To achieve this goal, the Department proposes to amend Chapter 95 to establish new effluent standards.

In addition to moving this regulatory package forward, the Department is considering, on a parallel track, the formation of a work group in the Monongahela River Watershed to review possible alternative approaches that would also be protective of this Commonwealth's water resources.

The proposed rulemaking was presented to the Water Resources Advisory Committee (WRAC) at a special meeting on June 19, 2009, and considered at the WRAC's regular meeting on July 15, 2009. The WRAC, by majority vote, recommended that the Department work in conjunction with the WRAC to form a Statewide stakeholders group to analyze the issues and develop appropriate solutions, in lieu of proceeding with the currently proposed rulemaking.



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