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WVU water experts warn: when it rains, polluted mine drainage can pour

Warden Mine discharge flows by a house in Sutersville, Pa.
Warden Mine discharge, photographed by WVU’s Ben Pursglove, flows by a house in Sutersville, Pa.

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. - February has been exceptionally wet, dumping more than one-and-three-quarters-inches greater-than-average rainfall during what is normally the driest month of the year. Unusually wet weather is a recipe for mine drainage overflows that can pollute nearby streams, warned Dr. Paul Ziemkiewicz, director of the West Virginia Water Research Institute at West Virginia University. Expect abandoned mines’ treatment systems to clog and fail or the mines themselves to blow out during the spring, he said.

Recent national news has drawn attention to the “50M gallons of polluted water [that] pours daily from 42 mine sites” in western states.

Paul Ziemkiewicz, director of the West Virginia Water Research Institute at WVU
Paul Ziemkiewicz

“The Monongahela River Basin has approximately 150M gallons per day of untreated mine drainage,” said Ziemkiewicz.  “Acid mine drainage and abandoned mine drainage continue to be significant threats to water and property values in our region.”

Ben Pursglove
Ben Pursglove

Mine drainage degrades private property
While driving to a routine water sampling site on the Youghiogheny River in mid-February, Ben Pursglove, an environmental scientist for WVWRI’s Three Rivers QUEST program, spotted what appeared to be a large flow of abandoned mine drainage, or AMD. The orange-tinged water streamed down the driveway of a house in Sutersville, Pa. belonging to George Casoni and then flowed into a tributary of the river known locally as ‘the Yough.’   

Casoni told Pursglove it had been a problem on his rental property for two weeks. Casoni said at one point there was several inches of orange water in his basement and four inches of orange water running down his driveway “washing away the asphalt.”

The drainage was turning away potential renters.  Casoni said he contacted local government offices and local officials.  As time went by and the polluted water was still flowing down the driveway, he decided to alert several television news stations and he received media attention.

Pursglove contacted Eric Harder of Youghiogheny Riverkeeper, a program of the Mountain Watershed Association. Three Rivers QUEST, or 3RQ, collaborates with the Yough Riverkeeper program on efforts to monitor water quality and develop water protection strategies in the Yough watershed. 

Harder noted that they had received several calls regarding the discharge and he notified the Pennsylvania Bureau of Abandoned Mine Reclamation.   The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency also became aware of the problem.

“A member of our organization sent us some pictures and indicated it was in the same location as a similar event in 2011,” said Harder.

“It became clear that heavy rains and a clogged drainpipe from the Warden mine caused a blowout of a large concrete plate that accesses the buried drainpipe on Mr. Casoni’s property.  The allowed polluted water to run outside its normal pipe route and through his property,” said Pursglove.

Pursglove noted that workers recently cleaned out the blocked drain and the polluted water is now flowing through the pipe and into the Yough as before.

Map of Youghiogheny River near mine drainage blowout

Map of mine discharge location near 3RQ site-M2. Scientists will be watchful for water quality effects of the mine discharge as they sample water near 3RQ site-M11, downstream of the discharge along the north-flowing Monongahela River. More river data can be found on the 3RQ website.

WVU’s Three Rivers QUEST program can help property owners
3RQ has been sampling the Monongahela River and Yough Sutersville, Pa. since July 2009.  The team collected additional water quality samples from this discharge for analysis.  Results are expected to be reported to 3RQ at the beginning of March.  More data can be found on the 3RQ website where people can see the difference in water quality at different locations on a data mapand view changes over time. 

Melissa O'Neal

Melissa O'Neal

“We mainly focus on total dissolved solids, or TDS, when sampling as part of our monthly monitoring. This includes laboratory analysis of dissolved metals, sulfate, bromide and chloride,” said Melissa O’Neal, 3RQ project manager. “While the 3RQ sampling location is just upstream of the mine discharge, our researchers will be looking to see if impacts from this discharge are noticed further downstream in Homestead, Pa. at Monongahela River mile 11 where we also routinely monitor.

“People forget about the amount of polluted abandoned mine drainage that continues to flow into our waterways until something like this ends up on Pittsburgh news,” said Ziemkiewicz.  “It’s 150 million gallons per day of untreated mine drainage going into the Monongahela River Basin.”

O’Neal added, “Funding from organizations like the Colcom Foundation allows us to give local decision-makers long-term water quality data. We can see trends and monitor the health of our waterways in terms of total dissolved solids. For instance, we were able to watch sulfate levels decrease in response to implementation of total discharge management in places like Dunkard Creek.” 

By 2010, a plan based on 3RQ data was put into effect, and sulfate concentrations in the Monongahela River began to decrease. 

As a result, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency approved the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection’s decision to remove the Mon from the “impaired for potable water use” listing in late 2014. 

“Without long-term monitoring, the before and after data may not have been concise enough for EPA to make that determination,” said O’Neal.

According to Harder, the Mountain Watershed Association and Youghiogheny Riverkeeper have been working to establish a treatment system for the continuous Warden Mine discharge into the Yough.  However, constructing the system is difficult due to the type of terrain and the amount of land needed for treating a discharge like this one.

O’Neal noted, “If anyone in the Upper Ohio River basin is interested in finding out more about untreated abandoned mine drainages or have other water quality concerns, I want them to contact me.  We’ve established good relationships with various watershed groups, local, state and federal agencies who have an interest in remediating abandoned mine drainage and other water quality concerns.”

Partnerships key to success
WVU’s West Virginia Water Research Institute has been actively researching water issues since 1967. When municipal water authorities in West Virginia were puzzled by the sudden increase of total dissolved solids in late 2008, said Ziemkiewicz, it was in the interest of WVWRI to find out what might be causing the changes in the water chemistry of the Monongahela River.

While numerous programs existed that monitored water quality, the data collected were either too sporadic or the studies did not include total dissolved solids. In response to the need for reliable TDS data, routine monitoring on the mainstem of the Monongahela and the mouths of its major tributaries began in 2009 with funding through the U.S Geological Survey and WVWRI.

In 2011, thanks to funding from the Colcom Foundation, the 3RQ program was launched to include the Allegheny and Ohio rivers along with the Monongahela. 3RQ partnered with Duquesne University, Wheeling Jesuit University and the Iron Furnace Chapter of Trout Unlimited. The partners monitor mainstem and mouths of major tributaries along the three rivers. 

In addition to routine monitoring monthly at 42 stations, 3RQ and its partners investigate community water quality concerns such as radiologicals in mine discharge and total trihalomethane, a potentially cancer-causing chemical, in schools.  The outreach component of the program engages local watershed groups with data management and roundtable events. 

“We do expect to see more untreated mine drainage entering watersheds in Pennsylvania and West Virginia this spring,” said O’Neal. “Thanks to the financial support from Colcom, Three Rivers QUEST is ready and able to work with our partners from area watershed associations, the universities, government agencies throughout the region to address water quality issues.”

To contact O’Neal at WVU, call 304-293-7006 or email Melissa.O’Neal@mail.wvu.edu.

-WVU-

tn/2/27/19

Contact: Paul Ziemkiewicz, West Virginia Water Research Institute
304.293.6958, paul.ziemkiewicz@mail.wvu.edu

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