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Our Chunky Fracking Water - Part 2

Our Mon River tap water still has high TDS levels ...and more. Ever hear of Acrylonitrile?

(Updated March 28, 2010)
December 26, 2009 - It’s been just over a year that I wrote my first blog about Our Chunky Fracking Water. I thought it was worth revisiting some of the changes, and lack of changes, that have occurred over the past 12 months.

TDS (total dissolved solids) continue to be at excessive levels in our tap water from the Monongahela River. Another alert was issued November 10, 2009. For those who missed the alert, PAWC followed-up with a flyer that arrived the day before Christmas with our December 2009 water bill:

Pennsylvania American Water
Alert Notifications

PWSID: Total Dissolved Solids in the Monongahela River
Issue Date: 11-10-2009

Attention Pennsylvania American Water Customers Living in Southern Allegheny and Washington Counties

The Monongahela River is Pennsylvania American Water’s primary source of supply for drinking water. The river has been periodically experiencing increased levels of total dissolved solids (TDS), which have been affecting the quality of your drinking water. Our water plants, as well as other water treatment facilities in the Monongahela River basin, do not have treatment to remove TDS from the Monongahela River source.
Although noticeable TDS levels are usually temporary, Pennsylvania American Water is dedicated to providing you with the highest quality water service, and we are working with the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) to monitor this condition and the community’s water quality.

Beyond TDS
I have learned more over the past 12 months about high-TDS “chunky” water being chlorinated and creating
trihalomethanes. Some say the risks can be more pronounced from the “gas-off” of chemicals during showering than from actual water consumption. It is much easier to filter one drinking water tap than your whole house.
Earlier this year we added a $30 faucet-end Brita filter to the kitchen sink, so we could at least partially filter our cooking and drinking water. We still decided to perform a water test through a certified testing lab (the test is considered uncertified because I took the water sample instead of lab personnel) of our unfiltered tap water at the end of November 2009, to see what the rest of the water in our house was like.

E.H. Aldrich Station of PAWC
E.H. Aldrich Station in El Rama where our tap
water is drawn from the Monongahela River

Water Test Results
The four chemicals listed below were somewhat expected due to the chlorination of our high-TDS tap water. These chemicals are listed in the order of their greatest health risk.
Human studies have suggested a link between exposure to trihalomethanes and colorectal cancers.

Levels are shown as (ppb) parts-per-billion:
[Test Results PDF-11KB]

Dibromochloromethane  7.60 ppb
Bromoform  .5 ppb
Chloroform  42.2 ppb
Bromodichloromethane  19.7 ppb


The risks are described by a water quality specialist:
These four chemicals are all what are called ‘disinfection by-products.’ These four are all part of a group of chemicals that are trihalomethanes (this is not a single chemical but a group of them).  Drinking water utilities have to test for total trihalomethanes.  The chemicals come from interaction between the chlorination process at the drinking water plant and organic matter in the river water. Trihalomethanes can cause cancer and some studies have linked them to reproductive problems, especially miscarriage.

What else we found
In these same test results, an even more disturbing chemical turned up in our tap water: ACRYLONITRILE at a level of .594 ppb  You might ask how this chemical even got on our radar.  It turns out that water wells close to natural gas drilling and hydraulic fracturing activities in our tri-state area have been turning up with acrylonitrile present in the water at varying levels. Since large quantities of waste water from gas well fracking still gets dumped into the river that provides our tap water, the Monongahela River, it just seemed logical that we might find this chemical in our water test results.


  • Acrylonitrile is irritating to the skin, eyes, and respiratory tract.
  • Toxic effects range from headache, fatigue, dyspnea, nausea and vomiting to asphyxiation, lactic acidosis and cardiovascular collapse.
  • Toxic effects are due primarily to the bioreactivity of acrylonitrile with cellular proteins and to its epoxide intermediate that is mutagenic and genotoxic.
  • Toxicity is also due to the release of cyanide during the metabolism of acrylonitrile.

Further comments from a water specialist:
The acrylonitrile results are pretty disturbing.  This is a very toxic carcinogen that is a plastics component. While (amazingly) acrylonitrile is not a regulated drinking water contaminant (the federal standards for what comes out of our taps only covers 83 substances), we do have a Pennsylvania water quality standard for acrylonitrile which is 0.051ppb (this is the level allowable in a stream).  Bob’s water has over eleven times that level.

So where does this leave us? 
Ready to move out of the area to one of the 16 states in the continental United States where no gas drilling is going to occur! Upstream from drilling, not downstream. Upwind from drilling, not downwind. The move probably won’t take place for a number of years, but wherever we live, my original quest remains the same: Make as many people aware of this water situation as possible, so that major changes can follow.

Save our Water
Improvements have been made in the past year on the quantities of gas drilling wastewater that can get dumped at waste treatment plants, but much more needs to be done. We have to put an end to dumping untreated wastewater into our waterways. At present, the only treatment is dilution. That’s not good enough. The treatment plant in the photo below is still allowed to accept 80,000 gallons of wastewater per day!  The only "treatment" is dilution with treated sewage before it gets dumped into the Monongahela River.


Are they really the good neighbors they claim to be?

Natural gas drilling companies have to step up and spend the money to create viable technologies that fully treat the chemicals in these brackish fluids. They also need to start using environmentally safe frac fluids. In areas like Washington County where wastewater is being recycled, drillers have to ensure us, under the threat of stiffer penalties, that wastewater will be handled more responsibly to prevent the ongoing fish kills from leaky pipes. Our county had two documented fish kills during a five month period in 2009.

Plenty of Water?
The other revision that desperately needs to be made is on the water withdrawal end of this whole equation. TDS levels become much higher in waterways when there is less water available to dilute the solids. Therefore, we need to put an end to the massive withdrawals of water for hydraulic fracturing of gas wells, especially during dry months when watersheds are already running low.
We also need much better documentation of water used for fracking from "cradle to grave." These records should be required by a state or federal agency and readily available for public review, instead of being held by the drilling companies. This would help eliminate some of the potential for midnight pumping and dumping.


Most gas well permits call for 6 million gallons of water needed for fracking one well, with 2 to 4 million gallons returning to the surface as waste water. That means an additional 2 to 4 million gallons of water has to be withdrawn from a local watershed to add to the recycled wastewater, in order to create another 6 million gallons for fracking. Therefore, wastewater recycling only reduces water use slightly.

48.5 million gallons of water PER DAY is permitted to be removed from the Ohio River watershed in 10 southwestern Pennsylvania counties over the next 4 to 5 years!

Another aspect of hydraulic fracturing people don’t often consider is that these large quantities of the water are removed from the ecosystem and pumped underground. Much of this water is lost, gone forever. How long can we afford to do that, when water is becoming more precious by the minute.

What can YOU do?
Bob's Top-7 bullet points on what you can do...

  • Pennsylvanians should take time today to write a letter of concern to the Pennsylvania DEP and ask for tighter regulation of permitted TDS levels (contact information is shown below). Permits for two additional wastewater facilities are currently in front of the DEP and require comments before the end of January 2010. One would dump drilling brine into the Monongahela River and the other would flow into the Youghiogheny River (Find more information below)

  • Call or write to your representatives at every level of government to demand more accountability and regulation of the gas drilling industry. Hydraulic fracturing of gas wells has widespread exemptions from many environmental laws that most industries must obey, such as the Safe Drinking Water Act, the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, and CERCLA - the Superfund law. There are others.

  • Ask your Congressional representatives to vote for the FRAC ACT so that frac fluids will be fully labeled and regulated under the Safe Drinking Water Act. Close the "Halliburton Loophole." Heck, pesticides are labeled, so why not frac fluids?? Just makes good sense.

  • Push for a gas severance tax in Pennsylvania in 2010 and beyond, since part of these revenues will be used to repair and restore our environment. Who else will be there to do it?

  • At the minimum, buy an activated charcoal filter to run your drinking water through. To filter water used to shower and bathe in, it will be necessary to buy a more expensive whole house water filtration system. In any case, make sure your bathroom is well ventilated while showering or bathing to vent gas-off.

  • Don't sign a gas lease without realizing all the ramifications. Encourage your township board and school board not to lease public lands for gas drilling. There are many serious air quality issues from gas production, especially important when it comes to children. Don't increase children's exposure, especially considering the current polluted state of our county's air.

  • Finally, hold your Pennsylvania legislators to THE PROMISE held in the words from the Pennsylvania Constitution that: "guarantees” you and your descendants “the right to clean air, pure water, and to the preservation of the natural, scenic, historic and aesthetic values of the environment.”
    Those words are very clear and easy to understand. Hold your elected Pennsylvania officials to the true meaning of these words, or vote them out of office, so someone who does abide by them can take their place.

Reply from my water company's
Water Quality Manager
January 5, 2010

I feel that several key issues are not accurately represented in this blog.  Under the "Beyond TDS" section, THMs are mentioned as a concern.  There is no problem with a "gas off" situation with THMs.  Also, the article does NOT mention that THMs are present in all water systems to some degree, and are regulated by the EPA at a four quarter running annual average never to exceed 0.08 mg/l as the sum of the four species.  The numbers in the article show a total level of 0.07 mg/l for the QUARTER. There was no mention of the level being below the MCL, and in compliance with the state and federal regulators.

Secondly, acrylonitrile is set as a water quality limit at 0.051 ppb due to its accumulation in fish tissues in a water body.  The drinking water health advisory which is the applicable number to quote has been set by EPA at 6 ppb, which means this result is ten times less than the drinking water advisory limit set by EPA.

Ronald G. Bargiel
Water Quality Manager
PA American Water

Bob's follow-up remark to this letter:
While our tap water's annual average was below the .08 mg/l standard and within regulations as Mr. Bargiel points out, there were times in 2008 when it spiked to nearly double that level at .156 mg/l.  See Total Trihalomethanes in the 4th row of the chart below indicating a range of 34-156 ppb in 2008.

Comments from a water consultant
December 8, 2010

The PA American Water Company's (Ronald G. Bargiel's) response to your inquiry regarding acrylonitrile warrants some clarification.  First, there is no established Maximum Contaminant Level (MCL) for acrylonitrile. The Drinking Water Health Advisory (also referred to as the U.S.National Drinking Water Standards and Health Criteria) for acrylonitrile of 6.0 ug/L referenced by Mr. Bargiel is based on a 1 in 10,000 (1x10-4) excess lifetime cancer risk (ELCR).  More commonly, particularly in the screening of residential water supplies, an ECLR of 1 in 1,000,000 (1x10-6) is applied, which results in a concentration of 0.06 ug/L  In fact, the U.S.EPA Mid-Atlantic Risk Based Concentration (RBC) Table lists a screening level for acrylonitrile in tap water of 0.045 ug/L (based on an ELCR of 1x10-6).  Second, Mr. Bargiel's statement that the surface-water human health criterion of 0.05 ug/L is due to people eating organisms in which acrylonitrile bio-accumulates, is misleading.  The U.S. National Water Quality Criteria lists a concentration for acrylonitrile of 0.25 ug/L for water from which organisms are consumed by humans.  If humans are both eating organisms and drinking the water, the U.S. National Water Quality Criteria list a level of 0.05 ug/L.  By this, the primary driver of the low human health criterion (0.05 ug/L) for acrylonitrile in surface water is consumption of the water, with consumption of organisms as a secondary contributor. 
With regard to Maximum Contaminant Levels (MCLs) and the basis on which they are developed, one should understand that a number of the MCLs are technology based; i.e., the levels reasonably achievable using existing treatment technologies.  If the development of MCLs were strictly risk based using an ELCR of 1x10-6, a number of the MCLs would be substantially lower.

Since this blog was written we received the 2009 Annual PAWC Water Quality Report. According to this report, the annual average for trihalomethanes was below the .08 mg/l standard, however, water did test over the limit at .089 mg/l during the year. See report below under Total Trihalomethanes:

Excerpts from the Pennsylvania Bulletin dated November 7, 2009
Full text

"Water quality analyses performed for the major watersheds of this Commonwealth to date, show that many of the rivers and streams of this Commonwealth have a very limited ability to assimilate additional TDS, sulfates and chlorides. This phenomenon was most evident during the fall of 2008, when actual water quality issues related to these parameters emerged in the Monongahela River basin. While river flows reached seasonal lows, the concentrations of TDS and sulfates in the river increased to historic highs, exceeding the water quality standards at all of the 17 Potable Water Supply intakes from the border with West Virginia to Pittsburgh. Exceedances of water quality standards for TDS and sulfate persisted in the river through November and December of 2008. Elevated chloride levels were observed on at least one major tributary—South Fork Tenmile Creek—and for the first time, elevated bromide levels were observed in these streams."

"During this period, several environmental agencies performed studies on the effects of TDS, sulfate and chloride discharges on the Monongahela and some of its tributaries. A study conducted by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Department and the Allegheny County Health Department (ACHD) also identified bromides as a key parameter of concern in these waters. The study concluded that a high percentage of the Disinfection By-Products (DBPs) being formed in the drinking water systems were brominated DBPs, which pose a greater health risk than chlorinated DBPs; and, subsequent formation of brominated DBPs increases overall DBP concentrations, specifically trihalomethanes (THMs). The study also concluded that based on the speciation there appears to be a strong correlation between THM formation and elevated source water bromide concentrations in the Monongahela River. As a result, the 17 potable water supply intakes on the Monongahela River are subject to higher levels of the more toxic brominated DBPs, creating increased risks of bladder cancer to their consumers."



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As Pennsylvania Implements New Wastewater Rules, Some State Waterways Still Face Problems

Acrylonitrile on Frac Sand

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mining is needed in SW Pennsylvania

Leasing public parks & school properties for Marcellus Shale gas drilling

Trihalomethanes - Health Canada



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