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WVU water research presented at Pittsburgh conference

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By SUZANNE ELLIOTT

For The State Journal

Drinking water in the Upper Ohio River basin is safe to drink, but it is still vital that the monitoring of run-off into the region's rivers and creeks be continued.

That's the conclusion of water quality experts from Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia who spoke Aug. 11 at the Convergence at the Confluence, a day-long conference hosted by the Three Rivers QUEST water quality monitoring program. The event, funded by Colcom Foundation of Pittsburgh, was held at Duquesne University.

QUEST stands for Quality Useful Environmental Study Teams. It is a water quality monitoring and reporting system that included bi-weekly water quality testing during a two-year period led by the West Virginia Water Research Institute at West Virginia University. The goal of the program was to determine the amount of total dissolved solids and various chemicals found in the region's rivers.

TDS, which occur naturally and from urban runoff, is a measure of the combined content of all inorganic and organic items found in a liquid. It is not considered harmful, but can make water taste funny and can damage clothing. Spawning fish and young fish, however, tend to be susceptible when water has high concentrations of TDS. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has a limit of 500 milligrams of TDS per liter of water, said Beth Dakin of Duquesne University's Center for Environmental Research and Education, who spoke at the event.

Water samples had been collected every two weeks by scientists and volunteers at 54 sites that cover 25,000-square miles along the region's rivers since January 2013.

Experts offered various chemical interpretations and breakdowns of data they found at collection points throughout the basin. The bottom line, however, of the two-year, $700,000 program, was that water is safe to drink, and there is no obvious manmade impact on the environment.

Bruce Dickson, an ecologist with the Clarion-based Iron Furnace Chapter of Trout Unlimited, a trout and salmon conservation organization, said he has been monitoring the runoff at Allegheny National Forest — Pennsylvania's only national forest — since January, where Marcellus shale drilling has taken and is taking place.

He said his data shows that deep shale drilling has not had an effect on the water table. The only two incidents he found that involved spillage were on site at the gas well pads.

“There has also not been any mine drainage,” said Dickson, one of the speakers at the conference.

Stan Kabala, associate director of Duquesne's Center for Environmental Research, said collection of the water samples has been vital in order to establish a solid picture of what is going on in the three rivers, especially with the number of coal mines and the increased number of gas wells being drilled in the three states. Coal and natural gas provide 80 percent of the energy used in the U.S.

The samples collected from the Upper Ohio River Basin were analyzed by a certified laboratory and then sent to Three Rivers, part of the West Virginia Water Research Institute, to provide more data and insight on the water basin's health.

“What is important about this is that a solid baseline of river quality is being put in place that can distinguish among legacy pollution issues such as abandoned mine drainage, other pollutants from non-point sources, and more significantly, pollution from shale gas exploitation,” Kabala said.