Bromide Still High in Mon, Scientists Say
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
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
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
"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 email@example.com or 412-320-7991.