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Study finds concerns in water quality

| Saturday, May 25, 2013, 11:58 p.m.
Eric Felack | Valley News Dispatch
Stan Kabala, associate director of the Center for Environmental Research and Education, and Beth Dakin, a post-doctoral researcher from Duquesne University, collect filtered water to send to a lab for extensive chemical testing from Buffalo Creek in South Buffalo Township on Wednesday, May 22, 2013.
Eric Felack | Valley News Dispatch
Maria Nagle, a graduate assistant with the Center for Environmental Research and Education, uses a probe to the measure water quality, including temperature, acidity, alkalinity, and oxygen levels in Buffalo Creek in South Buffalo Township on Wednesday, May 22, 2013.

Preliminary results of a long-term water-quality study in the region turned up high levels of dissolved sodium and chloride in Pine Creek in Pittsburgh's North Hills and persisting acid-mine drainage in the Loyalhanna, Conemaugh and Kiski rivers in Armstrong, Westmoreland and Indiana counties.

The ongoing Three Rivers Quest project is one of the most comprehensive water-quality studies in the region.

It covers more than 30,000 square miles of the Upper Ohio River Basin with 54 sampling locations along the Allegheny, Monongahela and Ohio rivers and at the mouths of their major tributaries.

Acid-mine drainage, sewage overflows, chemical fertilizers and road salt are among the pollutants tagged by these researchers in the region's waters.

They also are looking at bromide levels and other indicators to provide more information on the impact of the controversial process of fracking to reach natural gas reserves in the Marcellus shale.

“Everybody loves the rivers to fish in, to swim in, but we are facing these issues,” said Stan Kabala, associate director of Duquesne University's Center for Environmental Research and Education, who is coordinating the local portion of the study.

“But on the other hand, we know the benefits of road salt,” said Beth Dakin, a project researcher.

The study will help untangle the types of pollution that can affect the drinking-water supply and reduce populations of aquatic life, from rare darter fish to vegetation.

“We'll have a good profile of what is happening now and how things are changing,” Kabala said.

The tests will provide a baseline to measure future successes and failures in water quality, the researchers said.

“Now, we are going to have a more extensive ‘before,' ” Kabala said.

This study is different from a number of past surveys in its sheer size; scope, with testing for 15 indicators; and frequency, with sampling every two weeks for at least a year.

Researchers are about four months into the yearlong study, testing local waters for dissolved oxygen, temperature, acidity, conductivity, fluoride, bromides, sulfates, nitrates, phosphates and metals.

High sodium in Pine Creek

Samples so far show dissolved sodium and chloride in Pine Creek at about eight times higher levels than other sampling sites.

The local portion of the study directed by Duquesne University includes 14 sampling spots on the Allegheny, Kiski and Loyalhanna rivers as well as a number of tributaries.

Sodium and chloride can occur naturally in rocks and soils but also can be introduced via road salt.

At high levels, chloride is toxic to aquatic life.

“The levels might be caused by road salt from Route 8, or it could be the underlying geology,” Kabala said. “After a year, we might have a better idea.”

In 2005, the North Area Environmental Council released a three-year study on Pine Creek, which winds through 14 communities and enters the Allegheny River near the Sharpsburg and Etna boundary.

That study also found high levels of sodium, which is naturally occurring and can enter the water from area roads.

“We were concerned,” said Bill Moul of Marshall Township. Moul is president of the North Area Environmental Council, a nonprofit involved in ecological restoration projects, land conservation and education.

“The biological results for Pine Creek, according to the 2005 study, were not all that encouraging,” he said.

“With the Three Rivers Quest results, depending on their levels, it will cause us to take another look at this,” Moul said. “Then we'll have to decide if more sampling should be done.

“Then, if we should find out what the sources of the higher levels are, we'll have to decide what to do about it.”

If the water quality improved on Pine Creek, it would be home to more fish and aquatic life.

Dakin noted that two state-threatened species of fish reside at the mouth of Pine Creek to the Allegheny River — the bluebreast darter and Tippecanoe darter.

“Would they go farther and breed there if it was cleaner?” she asked.

Acid mine drainage, again

Dakin found high levels of iron with sampling at Black Lick Creek in Josephine, Loyalhanna, Conemaugh and Kiski rivers, which all flow into the Allegheny River.

From Sharpsburg to Schenley to Kittanning to Parker, the water quality improves steadily as you go north up the Allegheny River, according to the researchers.

The biggest single threat is acid-mine drainage, Dakin said.

“There's been a lot of improvement, but there needs to be more,” she said.

Watershed groups for the Kiski and Conemaugh rivers have continually secured a number of state grants to clean up some of the worst acid-mine drainage sites in the watershed.

The Roaring Run Watershed Association alone has secured nearly $100,000 in grants over the years for acid-mine drainage, according to Bob Kossak, association president.

And the group just rehabilitated nonfunctioning acid-mine treatment ponds in the Tinsmill section of Bell Township.

“The Kiski is cleaned up quite a bit, but we still have (mine drainage) issues to address,” Kossak said.

But there's been progress: With support from local businesses and anglers, the watershed association has been stocking the Kiski River and, in recent years, with trout have been surviving the year, he reported.

“And if the (mine drainage) issue is fixed,” he said, “the fish numbers would explode.”

According to Kossak, the Three Rivers Quest study will add to their case for more grants.

“If the watershed groups don't actively pursue the grants, these sites won't get cleaned up,” Kossak said, “and that's the key to improving the water quality.”

Mary Ann Thomas is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-226-4691

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