Water-quality conditions during low flow in the lower Youghiogheny River basin, Pennsylvania, October 5-7, 1998

Water-Resources Investigations Report 2001-4189

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In October 1998, a chemical synoptic survey was conducted by the U.S. Geological Survey, in cooperation with the U.S. Department of Energy, National Energy Technology Laboratory, in the Lower Youghiogheny River Basin in Pennsylvania to give a snapshot of present (1998) water quality during low-flow conditions. Water samples from 38 sites?12 mainstem sites, 22 tributaries, and 4 mine discharges that discharge directly to the Youghiogheny River?were used to identify sources of contaminants from mining operations. Specific conductance, water temperature, pH, and dissolved oxygen were measured in the field at each site and concentrations of major ions and trace elements were measured in the laboratory. Unaccounted for gains and losses in streamflow were measured during the study. Unaccounted for losses in streamflow might be attributed to water loss through streambed fractures. Extensive mine tunnels are present in the basin and loss of water to these tunnels seems likely. Unaccounted for gains in streamflow may be from unmeasured tributaries or surface seeps, but most of the gains are suspected to come from artesian flow through fractures in the streambed from underground mine pools. Influent flows of rust-colored water were noted in some river sections. The pH values for all the samples collected during this survey were above 5.8, and most (33 of 38 samples) were above 7.0. Samples from the four minedischarge sites also had pH values between 6.3 and 6.7. The lowest pH (5.8) was in a tributary, Galley Run. All 38 sampling sites had net alkalinity. The alkalinity load in the Youghiogheny River increased between Connellsville and McKeesport from 35 to 79 tons per day. Above Smithton, the measured alkalinity load in the Lower Youghiogheny River agreed well with the estimated alkalinity load. Below Smithton, measured alkalinity loads in the Lower Youghiogheny River are greater than calculated loads, resulting in unaccounted for gains in alkalinity. These gains are believed to be from seeps in the streambed. Approximately one-third of the load of total alkalinity in the Youghiogheny River at McKeesport is attributed to Sewickley Creek, which contri-butes 14 tons per day. Sulfate concentrations in the Youghiogheny River steadily increase from 33 milligrams per liter at Connellsville to 77 milligrams per liter near McKeesport. The measured concentrations of sulfate exceeded Pennsylvania water-quality standards at four tributary sites (Galley Run, Hickman Run, Sewickley Creek, and Gillespie Run) and all four mine-discharge sites but not at any main-stem sites. A large increase in sulfate load between West Newton and Sutersville can be attributed almost entirely to the contribution from Sewickley Creek (49 tons per day). Approximately 25 percent of the load measured between Connellsville and McKeesport is unaccounted for. These gains are believed to be from seeps in the streambed from underground mine pools. Similar patterns also were observed for loads of sodium, calcium, and magnesium. Unmeasured inputs from mine drainage are believed to be the source of these loads. Elevated concentrations (above background levels) of chemicals associated with drainage from coal-mining operations were measured in samples from tributaries, especially from Galley Run, Gillespie Run, and Sewickley Creek, and from the mine-discharge sites. The synoptic survey conducted for this study was successful in identifying generalized reaches of the Youghiogheny River where unaccounted for loads of constituents associated with mining activities are entering the river. However, the survey was not able to pinpoint the location of these loads. Remote-sensing techniques, such as thermal infrared imaging by the National Energy Technology Laboratory, could be useful for determining the precise locations of these inputs.

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USGS Numbered Series
Water-quality conditions during low flow in the lower Youghiogheny River basin, Pennsylvania, October 5-7, 1998
Series title:
Water-Resources Investigations Report
Series number:
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U.S. Geological Survey
Contributing office(s):
Pennsylvania Water Science Center
32 p.