The region’s most comprehensive, long-term study of water quality turned up the highest concentration of bromides — which are associated with natural gas drilling and coal mining — on the Allegheny and Kiski rivers.
The study also found consistently elevated levels of chlorides on Pine Creek in Pittsburgh’s North Hills.
While these results from the Three Rivers Quest (3RQ) study concerned the scientists, they generally characterized the year-long effort as having “no smoking guns, which is a good thing,” said Beth Dakin, a project researcher from Duquesne University.
“We’re seeing what we expected,” she said. “Although bromides were found, they were detected at lower levels.”
Throughout the study this year, researchers have tagged pollutants such as acid mine drainage, sewage overflows, chemical fertilizers and road salt in area roadways, which they expected to find.
The study covers more than 30,000 square miles of the Upper Ohio River Basin. There were 54 sampling locations along the Allegheny, Monongahela and Ohio rivers and at the mouths of their major tributaries.
The Colcom Foundation recently awarded a second grant — $500,000 to Duquesne University, West Virginia University’s Water Research Institute, Wheeling Jesuit University and the Iron Furnace Chapter of Trout Unlimited — for a second year of testing.
“In the broadest scientific sense, even a year is only one data point,” said Stan Kabala, associate director of Duquesne University’s Center for Environmental Research and Education, which is coordinating the local portion of the study.
A second year will provide a better baseline of what is happening to make future comparisons.
“We’ll get a better picture of what is ‘normal,’ ” Kabala said.
“With the baseline more solid, the causes of pollution won’t be so easily dismissed.
“Identifying water quality impacts can be difficult if you don’t have a good baseline,” he said. “It makes it more possible to maintain water quality in these rivers with threats of new pollution.”
Bromides in Kiski and Conemaugh rivers
Three Rivers Quest scientists have found that the main contributor to the elevated levels of bromides in the Allegheny River — the highest in the region — is the Kiski and Conemaugh rivers.
There has been widespread concern about the presence of bromides in a drinking water source like the Allegheny River because once it combines with chlorine during water treatment, it forms carcinogens.
“Out of the total amount of bromides found, it’s a fairly low concentration,” Dakin said.
“This is not critical,” she stressed, “but it is something to be watched.”
Bromides, which occur naturally, are not regulated.
They are associated with fracking water used in drilling Marcellus shale natural gas wells as well as coal mining.
“We can’t say where the bromides are coming from,” Dakin said.
Bob Kossak, president of the Kiskiminetas River Watershed Association, said that the bromides likely are a part of the acid mine drainage pollution that is still a major issue on the Kiski and Conemaugh rivers.
“To the best of my knowledge, there is no discharge of brine or fracking water into the Kiski and Conemaugh rivers now,” he said.
Kossak is manager of the Kiski Valley Water Pollution Control Authority, which at one time discharged “treated” fracking water sent to the authority through its sewage lines.
The authority was already in the process of halting its discharges of the treated fracking water when DEP asked for municipal authorities across the state to voluntarily stop such discharges several years ago.
According to Kossak, two facilities on the Conemaugh that discharged fracking water stopped when DEP took issue with the practice.
Chlorides in Pine Creek
The elevated readings of chlorides in Pine Creek, which can be caused by natural conditions as well as road salt, needs more long-term study, according to Duquesne scientists.
The scientists were surprised to see that chloride levels continued to be steady throughout the year.
“You can surmise that it is caused road salt, but (not in June),” Kabala said.
Chloride is toxic to aquatic life and impedes diversity of life in Pine Creek.
The level of chlorides in Pine Creek, which traverses the North Hills, is about eight times higher than any other part of the region, according to Dakin.
More study is needed, she said.
The 3RQ finding does reconfirm the waterway’s chloride levels, said Bill Moul of Marshall Township, president of North Area Environmental Council.
“Some additional study of Pine Creek upstream is warranted,” Moul said. “It would be good to know the sources — where it’s naturally occurring or a result of snow melt applications.”
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