Monongahela River water leaving bad taste but is safe to drink

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People getting their drinking water from 11 public suppliers using the Monongahela River may once again be getting a bad taste in their mouths, and the problem could continue, off and on, through the rest of the year.

According to the state Department of Environmental Protection, levels of total dissolved solids, or TDS, in a 70-mile stretch of river from West Virginia to Pittsburgh fluctuated above acceptable state and federal water quality standards earlier this week. A similar problem occurred last fall.

The tainted water has not caused any illness and it is safe to drink, but if TDS levels are high, the water may taste salty or brackish, and it could cause spotting on glassware or damage in automatic dishwashers.

On Monday, TDS levels in the Monongahela River at Point Marion near the Pennsylvania-West Virginia line and at Elizabeth ranged between 500 and 600 milligrams per liter. Yesterday, because of the dilution caused by recent rains, the TDS level had declined to 144 at Point Marion.

"The amount of precipitation fluctuates along with river flows at this time of the year and so do TDS levels on the Mon," said Helen Humphreys, a DEP spokeswoman. "The numbers today are significantly lower, but as fall progresses, the TDS levels may stay higher longer."

Water treatment plants are not equipped to remove TDS, which is a measure of all elements dissolved in water, including carbonates, chlorides, sulfates, nitrates, sodium, potassium, calcium and magnesium. The DEP and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency have established secondary maximum contaminant levels of 500 parts per million of TDS for the commonwealth's drinking water and waterways.

Sources of TDS include wastewater from oil and gas drilling, sewage treatment plants, storm water runoff, abandoned mine drainage and a host of industrial activities.

DEP Secretary John Hanger said customers with concerns should use bottled water to drink and prepare food until TDS levels decline.

The DEP announced yesterday it will meet with West Virginia environmental officials to identify sources of the TDS problem throughout the Monongahela River watershed. It also said it will host one or more public meetings to provide detailed information and a status report to residents of the river basin. No meeting has yet been scheduled.

Similar problems with high TDS levels in the river last fall prompted the DEP to direct certain sewage treatment plants that were accepting waste water from deep Marcellus shale gas well operators and discharging it into the Monongahela River or its tributaries after minimal treatment to limit their discharges.

The state also began monitoring TDS levels in the river using both U.S. Geological Survey gauges and conducting confirmatory sampling for lab analysis. In June, it gave a $75,000 grant to the River Alert and Information Network, or RAIN, to develop a monitoring network, which is being installed, and a source water protection program.

In April, the DEP released a proposed strategy for new discharges of high TDS wastewater designed to meet the 500 milligrams per liter effluent standard by January 2011. New regulatory standards will be considered by the Environmental Quality Board on Aug. 18 and will be available for public comment.

Myron Arnowitt, state director of Clean Water Action, an environmental group, said the DEP also needs to better regulate the existing TDS discharges.

"Our concern is the number of permitted sites that are continuing to dump waste waster into the Mon virtually untreated," Mr. Arnowitt said. "Clearly, there is a problem that continues to happen with the discharges."


Don Hopey can be reached at dhopey@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1983.


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