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Survey: Allegheny River water quality holds steady

Mary Ann Thomas
| Saturday, Sept. 12, 2015, 11:02 p.m.
Plant manager John Hendrickson explains the filtration process next to the micro filters at Buffalo Township's  water filtration plan, which opened in December 2013. FILE ART.
Erica Dietz | Valley News Dispatch
Plant manager John Hendrickson explains the filtration process next to the micro filters at Buffalo Township's water filtration plan, which opened in December 2013. FILE ART.
A pond of water at the New Kensington Water Authority treatment plant  Constitution Boulevard near Esther Avenue. FILE ART
Jason Bridge | Valley News Dispatch
A pond of water at the New Kensington Water Authority treatment plant Constitution Boulevard near Esther Avenue. FILE ART

Water quality is holding steady on the Allegheny River even though Marcellus shale drilling waste water and other river contaminants linger, according to one of the most comprehensive water surveys in the region.

However, all the news is not good: water from a creek in Indiana County that eventually drains into the Allegheny River via the Kiski River near Freeport keeps turning up bromide, a salt often associated with waste water from Marcellus shale fracking and abandoned mine drainage.

When combined with chlorine to treat drinking water drawn from the Allegheny, bromide form the carcinogen trihalomethane (THM).

The results are part of the Three Rivers Quest (3RQ) study, now in its third year, covering more than 30,000 square miles of the Upper Ohio River Basin. There are 54 sampling locations along the Allegheny, Monongahela and Ohio rivers and at the mouths of their major tributaries.

The highest concentration of bromide, the most persistent pollutant in the study since it began, was found in Blacklick Creek in Indiana County. The salt then travels downstream hitting the Conemaugh, Kiski and Allegheny rivers.

By the time the bromides hit the Kiski and the Allegheny rivers, they're diluted, according to Beth Dakin, a researcher from Duquesne University with 3RQ.

THMs showed up at varying levels in 2011 for drinking water surveys at water authorities including Tarentum, Buffalo Township, Brackenridge and New Kensington — all of which draw their water from the Allegheny River.

However, from 2010 to 2015, only Brackenridge violated federal drinking water standards for THMs in 2011, according to test results filed with the state Department of Environmental Protection.

Frack water bans working

In 2010, when the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority found a significant increase in bromides in Allegheny River water, a flurry of testing resulted in a request from the state for sewage treatment plants to stop accepting frack water.

The studies revealed the major source of bromide in the Allegheny River basin is the discharges of oil and natural gas waste water, both conventional and unconventional. Sources include treatment facilities on Blacklick Creek in Indiana County, Crooked Creek in Armstrong County, the Allegheny River in Warren, and others, according to studies by the Pittsburgh Water Authority and DEP.

The DEP ended up asking local sewage authorities in 2011 — which couldn't treat the water, only dilute it — to voluntarily not accept the water.

The voluntary ban, imposed by treatment plants throughout the Alle-Kiski Valley, helped reduce pollutants and improve drinking water quality in the area, according to Paul Ziemkiewicz, director of the West Virginia Water Research Institute at West Virginia University and one of the researchers with the 3RQ study.

“We were on track to really make a mess of the river,” said Ziemkiewicz.

Since the ban, area managers of water plants that draw surface water from the Allegheny have seen either an improvement in water quality or no problem at all.

In Brackenridge, where the THMs exceeded federal drinking water standards for 2011, the levels have since gone down. The borough serves about 3,000 borough residents and a part of Fawn Township.

“The borough, Allegheny County and DEP all worked hard to reduce the THMs,” said Denise Tocco, Brackenridge secretary and treasurer.

The water authority continues to look into ways to better treat the water.

Don Amadee, manager of the Municipal Authority of Buffalo Township said that THMs have been decreasing in the last several years.

The Authority serves 5,000 residents in Buffalo Township, Freeport Borough and the South Buffalo Township Municipal Authority.

“Whether it's due to upgrades to our treatment process or changes in the raw water quality from the river, I can't say,” he said.

The New Kensington Water Authority reports that water quality trends have been the same for the last eight years, predating the frack water ban. The Authority serves about 15,000 residents in New Kensington, Arnold, Lower Burrell, Upper Burrell, Allegheny Township, Washington Township and parts of Plum.

According to Mark Grossheim, a chemist at the New Kensington Water Authority, THMs haven't been a problem.

“Raw water quality is good,” he said.

“The important thing is we've had an improving trend against a background of the coal industry and unconventional oil and gas,” said Ziemkiewicz. “The Allegheny River is in great shape, there is no indication of trends either positive or negative.”

Although Myron Arnowitt, Pennsylvania state director of Clean Water Action, agrees that the water quality is holding in the area, there is no guarantee for the future.

“I think that there is nothing enforceable that the state can rely on and that has been a problem,” Arnowitt said.

The state has voluntarily asked municipal water treatment plants not to accept fracking water because of the pollution and because they don't have the technology and equipment to treat the water, he said.

“We would like to see something you can count on before the next time, when there will be another rush for natural gas. People won't know what to do with their waste water and we'll be back where we were and someone will want to take a shortcut,” he said.

Mary Ann Thomas is a staff writer for Trib Total Media.

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