Posted: February 10, 2014 at 9:37 pm
By Bart Keeler, Gus Willis, Shanna Rose and Brian Thorpe
The Monongahela River was once used to transport coal from the mines of north-central West Virginia to the steel mills in Pittsburgh. Today, it pushes over 900 tons of hazardous waste downstream to Pennsylvania each year.
The same river supplies Morgantown, West Virginia with its drinking water.
A report done for the West Virginia Bureau for Public Health flagged 55 potentially significant sources of contamination that could affect the Monongahela River in Morgantown. Many of these sources are located in an industrial park dangerously close to the water supply for the city, according to the Source Water Assessment Report.
Some say Morgantown could suffer a spill similar to the industrial accident that leaked 7,500 pounds of 4-methocyclohexane methanol (MCHM) into the Elk River in Charleston last month, polluting the drinking water for more than 300,000 residents in nine counties.
“If a spill occurred in the zone of critical concern, it would reach the (drinking water) intake quickly,” says Evan Hansen, president of Downstream Strategies, a Morgantown based consulting firm.
According to the water assessment report done for the state, Morgantown is considered at high risk for a contaminated water supply. The report tagged 31 industrial locations in the city for being potentially significant sources of contamination Most of these sources are situated in the Morgantown Industrial Park, according to Hansen. The industrial park is located just across the Monongahela River from the Morgantown Utilities Board’s water treatment facility, which treats the city’s drinking water.
“Chemical leaks can have a tremendous impact on the community,” says Dr. Alan Ducatman, a professor of public health at West Virginia University. “If you don’t have drinking water, it drastically changes your quality of life.”
Other polluting sources, while not at direct risk of impairing the city’s water supply, are contaminating the river’s aquatic life further downstream, hurting fishing and other recreational activities on the Mon. For example, Deckers Creek, which empties into the Mon River downtown, is polluted with acid mine drainage and sewage.
Some of the chemicals currently being released into the Monongahela River include manganese, hydrochloric acid, vanadium, barium, arsenic and zinc, which are all hazardous, according to the Right to Know Network, a nonprofit database that culls information about chemical accidents from government records. Many other chemicals being released into the river are unknown because the companies using them are not required to disclose their use.
Removing these toxic chemicals from the water would be neither easy nor cheap, says Jennifer Weidhaas, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at West Virginia University.
“Our water treatment systems are designed… to primarily to remove things like sticks and things that are pretty easy to get out,” says Weidhaas.
These methods, however, are not as effective when a massive amount of chemicals enter a water supply, as recently happened in Charleston, West Virginia. When two chemicals being stored by Freedom Industries for use in cleaning coal were leaked into the Elk River, West Virginia American Water was unable to filter it out, thus contaminating the water supply for 300,000 people.
“[The water treatment system] we have in Morgantown is quite advanced, but I don’t know that it would have treated [MCHM] had it been released here,” Weidhaas says.
Ducatman says chemical contaminants from industrial plants aren’t the only potential source of water contamination in the Morgantown area. Fracking uses tons of water to extract natural gas from the earth. When the gas comes back up, so does the chemical-infused water and a mix of brine (salt and water); bromine, an element used in gas additives, flame retardants; sulfur compounds; and various acids.
Northeast Natural Energy of Charleston drilled two natural gas wells in the Morgantown Industrial Park in 2011, and URS Flint, a shale fracking company based in Canada, has a site in the park as well.
“Bromine is undesirable for several reasons, most notably for its possible carcinogenic activity when it reacts with other things,” Ducatman says.
Amy Bergdale, an aquatic biologist for the Environmental Protection Agency, agrees that most of the pollution now affecting the Mon River and other waterways in West Virginia is from mining and natural gas drilling.
One of the problems in the Elk River disaster was late notification of the leak. West Virginia American Water Company, which provides drinking water for the region, was not aware of the chemical spill until it had already entered the water supply.
“Had they had an early detection system saying that something weird was in the water, they potentially could have stopped taking water out of the river and gone to an alternative water source,” Weidhass said.
Even with an early warning, a leak of that size is still dangerous once it enters the water and very costly to filter out.
West Virginia public health officials commissioned the source water assessment reports in 2003 for each water supply in the state. According to the report, the “critical zone” for Monongahela River water supply encompasses most of Morgantown and the area upstream to the south of the city.
Deckers Creek, a 25-mile long tributary flowing from Preston County into the Mon River, is part of this zone of critical concern.
Every day, the abandoned mine in Richard, W.Va., dumps about 2,000 pounds of acid into the creek. It sits only five miles from where Deckers Creek meets the Mon River, and causes the rust-orange color in the creek.
“If you go down to the river and watch Deckers Creek come in, the (Monongahela) River will be one color and Deckers Creek will be a completely different color,” says Tim Denicola, acting executive director of Friends of Deckers Creek.
“We have seen improvements in the upper watershed (of Deckers Creek),” he says. “But there have been no improvements in the lower watershed because of the Richard mine.”
Denicola says the only way to decontaminate the final five miles of Deckers Creek would be to build a multimillion dollar treatment facility downstream of the mine.
Acid mine drainage is not the only pollutant in the river downstream of the water treatment plant, Bergdale says. Coal power plants like the one located right on the Monongahela in downtown Morgantown also dump contaminants into the river. Bergdale noted that air emissions from these plants are regulated, but dumping pollutants into the water is not.
“There has been a huge push to get the emissions from power plants under control… but what we found is that nobody paid attention to the water discharge,” says Bergdale. “There are these huge plants that are operating under permits with water release levels that are appalling.”
Even so, Bergdale and others say, the Monongahela River has definitely improved over the past decades.
“There are undeniable improvements to both the chemistry and biology of the aquatic community,” Denicola says.