By Laura Legere
September 11, 2018 - Pennsylvania public water suppliers could face tens of millions of dollars in plant upgrades and treatment costs because of an obscure water quality rule change that was tucked into a state budget bill at the request of coal companies last year.
The switch will save mine operators and nonprofits that treat drainage from abandoned mines “several millions of dollars,” the Pennsylvania Coal Alliance said.
But some of that treatment burden is now expected to shift to downstream public drinking water suppliers — and, by extension, their customers.
The rider in the omnibus law signed by Gov. Tom Wolf last October directed Pennsylvania environmental regulators to rewrite rules so that the legal limit for manganese no longer has to be met at least 99 percent of the time everywhere in streams, as had been required for decades.
Now, it will have to be met only where drinking water suppliers pull water from rivers.
Coal companies say Pennsylvania’s standards were stricter than neighboring states and required them to perform costly and unnecessary treatment to remove the metal from mine water before discharging it. They argue that marginally higher federal discharge limits for coal mines, combined with dilution, will more than protect drinking water sources that are on average more than 40 miles downstream from their outfalls.
The federal Environmental Protection Agency considers manganese a secondary water contaminant — meaning it is regulated largely for aesthetic reasons.
The mineral occurs naturally in rock and is used in industrial processes like metal manufacturing. Manganese levels above the drinking water standard give water a “black to brown color,” a “bitter metallic taste” and cause “black staining,” the EPA says.
Yet the federal agency is undertaking an examination of drinking water systems nationwide based on recent studies that indicate elevated levels of the metal may cause neurological harm to infants and children.
Neurological effects stemming from elevated manganese may include “poor school performance, impaired cognitive function, diminished memory, abnormal performance on neuro-behavioral tests, motor impairments, and increased oppositional or aggressive behavior and hyperactivity,” the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection said.
Manganese is costly to remove from water because it is difficult.
Pennsylvania American Water identified at least eight plants at its 66 permitted water supply systems statewide that are likely to face higher manganese levels in raw water because of the law change and would require upgrades to deal with it.
The Hershey-based company that provides water and wastewater services to about 2.4 million people in communities across the commonwealth estimates those one-time upgrades would cost $40 million to $60 million, while its annual chemical and monitoring costs would increase by between $700,000 and $1.4 million.
The Pennsylvania Local Government Conference — made up of the associations that represent the state’s county and municipal officials — said chemical usage alone would add an annual cost of $20,000 at just one municipal water authority operating a small plant that treats a million gallons per day.
Water suppliers may face treatment challenges even in streams that meet the new standard because the allowable level of manganese near river intakes — 1 milligram per liter — is 20 times the amount permitted in finished drinking water — 0.05 milligrams per liter.
Under Pennsylvania regulations, the 0.05 mg/l manganese drinking water standard is an enforceable limit for public water systems.
Coal Mines Aren't Alone
Coal mines aren’t the only ones discharging manganese to Pennsylvania waterways.
Water pollution permits for more than 900 discharge points in Pennsylvania that aren’t associated with coal mines either limit how much manganese can be sent into rivers or require monitoring and reporting of manganese levels at outfalls.
Facilities with significant discharges in the state include coal-fired power plants, metals manufacturers, municipal sewer authorities and chemical companies.
Opponents of the Pennsylvania law change are urging DEP to minimize the damage.
Pennsylvania Public Utility Commissioner Andrew Place said in public comments that the shift is a significant loosening of environmental and health protections that “will disproportionately impact smaller water systems, many of which are already struggling.”
He suggested companies and operations that discharge manganese should be responsible for comprehensive in-stream monitoring and the state DEP should establish strict penalties — including forcing dischargers to reimburse water companies for costs when manganese levels at drinking water intakes rise above the stream standard.
A DEP spokesman said the agency is still evaluating how the rule might change.
The Administrative Code rider required regulators to publish proposed rules on an expedited schedule — by the end of January 2018 — but DEP initiated an information-gathering period instead, saying data will be necessary to prepare and support the rule.
Usually, states work backward from an enforceable drinking water standard to establish a stream standard that will require only conventional treatment methods to get drinking water to the right quality. The law change reversed that process.
Now, DEP must evaluate if the current stream standard is still appropriate at drinking water supply intakes.
And it has to evaluate if it needs to directly address “more sensitive” categories of water uses that will no longer benefit from the diluting buffer zone between pollution sources and water intakes that was built into the previous rule.
That buffer zone used to be relied on to protect aquatic life and to maintain water quality suitable for recreation, irrigation, industry or livestock.
“The manganese standard is old. Science has evolved. We wanted to make sure we were keeping up with that,” said Lee McDonnell, director of DEP’s Bureau of Clean Water.
Dilution as the Solution
Coal companies think the law change’s opponents are exaggerating any potential impacts to drinking water suppliers.
Federal rules limit manganese in coal mine discharges to a monthly average of 2 milligrams per liter and a daily maximum of 4 mg/l. Regulators also impose site-specific permit limits when discharges pose a risk of interfering with downstream water uses.
In response to DEP’s information-gathering request, Cecil-based Consol Energy demonstrated a theoretical worst-case scenario by analyzing the highest manganese levels in raw mine wastewater at four of its discharge locations in Indiana and Armstrong counties.
It found that levels at the nearest water intake — a Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority site on the Allegheny River — would meet the 0.05 mg/l drinking water standard even if the river was flowing at a rate about 40 times lower than the minimum flow measured during the previous year.
Manganese is an essential nutrient that occurs in foods like tofu, beans, nuts, fish, spinach, whole grains and black tea, the Pennsylvania Coal Alliance said. Its removal from wastewater can be damaging to aquatic life because treatment often requires significantly raising the water’s pH, or making it more alkaline.
“Folks generally are not understanding that we are already a regulated industry and we just want to be treated like our counterparts in Kentucky, West Virginia and Ohio,” the coal alliance’s executive director Rachel Gleason said.
A Block on Backsliding
Whatever form the state DEP’s rule finally takes, it won’t mean permit restrictions on manganese discharges will all be relaxed.
The federal Clean Water Act limits DEP’s ability to ease existing permit limits under its anti-backsliding provisions. So unless an exception to those rules applies, “dischargers with existing manganese limits will not see a relaxation in the limits, and DEP will not go back and reevaluate the manganese limits in those permits,” DEP spokesman Neil Shader said.
In general, limits in new permits are expected to be less stringent, he said, but so-called technology-based effluent limits — like the federal limit on the amount of manganese allowed in coal mining discharges — will still apply if they are stricter.
The law could also be challenged in court.
Myron Arnowitt, the Pennsylvania state director for Clean Water Action, said the environmental organization is examining the legality of the manganese provision and other riders in the budget bill.
Environmentalists are worried that if the strategy is left unchallenged, more contaminants might be slipped into the legal loophole that applies water quality standards only at public drinking water intakes.
“We are definitely concerned about this kind of precedent,” he said.