Bromide Still High in Mon, Scientists Say

Pittsburgh Tribune-Review
4 November 2011
By Timothy Puko

Bromide in the Monongahela River remains at high levels despite state regulators' attempts to limit the chemical, researchers said Thursday.

The scientists and state environmental regulators have expressed concerns about bromide because it can form carcinogens when it goes through drinking-water chlorination. The Mon River basin provides drinking water to about 1 million people from West Virginia to Pittsburgh.

Bromide levels haven't registered high enough for long enough to create public health danger, but levels in 2011 didn't drop from spikes in 2010, indicating that whatever is changing the river water isn't going away, Carnegie Mellon University professor Jeanne VanBriesen said during a research symposium.

"I wouldn't say you have to ring the alarm that something's wrong with the drinking water, but people need to know that these are choices that we make," said VanBriesen, director of Water Quality in Urban Environmental Systems, which studies how to manage contaminants in urban watersheds.

"We are dependent on this water system. We have to think about all the things we put in it."

The state Department of Environmental Protection is considering studies that could help create standards for bromide pollution, spokeswoman Jamie Legenos said in an e-mail. The state hasn't regulated it because the chemical is naturally occurring and doesn't pose problems for humans or the environment in its natural state.

Researchers aren't certain why levels rose in the region's rivers starting last year. VanBriesen began studying bromide levels because of the booming shale gas drilling industry, but wastewater from conventional drilling, mining discharges, power plants and surface runoff could contribute to bromide levels, regulators say.

In an attempt to cut bromide levels, state officials asked Marcellus shale drillers this spring to stop taking fracking wastewater to treatment plants that dump treated water into rivers. Sampling from VanBriesen's research team showed no noticeable drop in bromide after that request.

Some worry the problem could grow: the shale drilling industry continues to grow, and power plants -- which use bromide to clean harmful pollutants from coal burn-off -- likely will use more of the chemical in coming years as federal regulators enact rules to limit their emissions of mercury and other metal carcinogens.

GenOn Energy doesn't use bromide -- and doesn't plan to start -- at its power plants, including one along the Monongahela in Elrama, Washington County, said Stephen Frank, an environmental scientist with the company. He said shale drilling is the biggest new phenomenon since the bromide spike started.

"There's not much that's changed in the power industry over the past several years," he said. "I don't think there's an increase of use of bromide, if at all."

But Kathryn Klaber, executive director of the Marcellus Shale Coalition, an industry group, claimed the data are evidence that shale drillers aren't the problem. Coalition members stopped dumping treated wastewater into rivers when asked to this spring, and if bromide levels didn't drop, someone else must have been responsible all along, she said.

"You've got to start looking at other sources," Klaber said.

The lingering bromide problem contradicts other developments in the Monongahela, which resumed its long-term improvement after some setbacks from 2008 to 2010, scientists said.

Pollution from dissolved solids dropped and aquatic life population and diversity are growing, they said. The coal industry became more active in water management since government biologists determined mine discharges led to a massive fish kill in Dunkard Creek in Greene County in 2009, said Paul Ziemkiewicz, director of the West Virginia Water Research Institute in Morgantown. The Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission in September sued Cecil-based Consol Energy for civil damages because of the Dunkard Creek pollution.

"My takeaway would be that the state of the Mon is improving, but we have to be careful with this new set of activities that is really starting to dominate the landscape," said Daniel J. Bain, who teaches groundwater geology at the University of Pittsburgh. "It's very sensitive. If you do add (pollution) from somewhere else, we don't have any buffering left."

Timothy Puko can be reached at or 412-320-7991.