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What is the Quality of Pennsylvania’s Water? It’s Getting Better

Before the implementation of the Clean Water Act, Pittsburgh’s rivers were so polluted, they barely even had fish, according to Brady Porter, Duquesne University associate professor of biology.

“Not any for commercial fishing or recreational fishing,” Porter said. “They were dead, they [the rivers] were basically sewers where our abandoned mine water would flow orange.”

But beginning in January 2013, a team of researchers and citizens began taking samples every two weeks and monitoring the quality of the water at 54 sites along the upper Ohio River basin and have found this is not the case anymore.

“We’re looking for a number of indicators or markers to see what’s going on in the water, whether abandoned mine drainage impact, which is a legacy issue for decades of course…but also new issues like non-point source pollution, runoff, but then also potential impacts from Marcellus Shale extraction,” says Stanley Kabala, Duquesne University associate director of the Center for Environment Research and Education.

More than 18 months into their project, the researchers gathered Monday at Duquesne University to discuss what they’ve learned so far.

Kabala said they found a decreasing amount of bromide in the river.

“What we’re finding in the last year or year and a half is that bromide is going down,” Kabala said. “What we think that this is better behavior on the part of treatment works, more accurate, more careful, more proper treatment,” Kabala said. “Some plants being closed down so that essentially this stuff just isn’t getting into the streams and rivers, and that’s a very positive thing.”

According to Kabala, bromide is a marker for Marcellus Shale flow back water.

He said bromide itself is benign and isn’t harmful to humans. However, if it is in water that is then treated using chlorine, it creates trihalomethane, which is a carcinogen.

Another finding was very high chloride in tributaries such as Pine Creek in Etna, which Kabala attributed to road salt used in the winter.

The project included researchers from Duquesne, West Virginia and Wheeling Jesuit universities as well as local groups and volunteers. 

The samples were all processed at the same lab, and the results can be found on Three Rivers QUEST’s website.

Though they still have about a year left of collecting samples, Kabala said he hopes this research will create a network of “citizen scientists” who can continue on with the work.

“We weren’t altogether sure what was going on in the rivers, and you have to remember these are ecological resources, it’s the wildlife thing, of course,” Kabala said. “It’s also the source of our drinking water, and immediately, when you say drinking water, you think of health concerns, we needed a good baseline for the quality of the water going into the intakes of the drinking water treatment works.”

And as for the fish - Porter said their population is expanding and colonizing new places.

“Some of these systems have come back to the point where they’re fascinating for recreation and also a much more balanced and healthy ecosystem,” he said.

Jess is from Elizabeth Borough, PA and is a junior at Duquesne University with a double major in journalism and public relations. She was named as a fellow in the WESA newsroom in May 2013.