Waterworld: Behind the scenes at the Beaver Falls Municipal Authority

By Rachel Morgan

Beaver County Times


Supplying clean water for nearly 50,000 people isn’t easy.

The Beaver Falls Municipal Authority provides drinkable — or potable — water for about 45,000 local people in 22 communities in Beaver County, plus Zelienople.

The authority, located on the banks of the Beaver River, draws about 7.5 million gallons from the river each day, pumping it through 16 points of treatment. Half of these treatments are chemical-related — soda ash is added to adjust pH; powder-activated carbon for taste and odor control; fluoride for bone strength; and chlorine for disinfection, among others. The other half are physical, such as screens that filter out leaves from the river.

The authority then sends out 7 million gallons of treated, potable water to the system, via 350 miles of water mains, which are supported by eight pumping stations that push out treated water from 16 tanks.

The other approximately 500,000 gallons of treated water are used internally within the plant, such as to clean the filtering equipment.

In December 2010, the authority opened its new intake facility, located further upstream than the older one. It also updated the dam and is in the process of updating primary basins, holding tanks used to treat the water about halfway through the process.

Plant manager Jim Riggio said the authority has spent upward of $22.5 million on these improvements.

“Regulations changed, and we weren’t able to basically have water that was acceptable under those regulations, so we decided that the only way to do that was to make the necessary changes,” Riggio said. “The dam being the first one, and recently, the primary basins.”

But it hasn’t always been smooth sailing.

Earlier this year, two Ohio men were charged with dumping thousands of gallons of fracking wastewater and drilling mud into a storm sewer in Youngstown that emptied into the Mahoning River, which converges with the Shenango River to form the Beaver River, from where the authority draws its water.

Test results from the scene of the dumping in Youngstown showed the presence of several hazardous pollutants in the wastewater, including benzene and toluene, court documents said.

The men — Ben Lupo of Poland, the owner of Hardrock Excavating LLC, and employee Michael Guesman of Cortland were both charged with violating the Clean Water Act. Lupo also owns D&L Energy, the company that owned and operated the Class II injection well in Youngstown that was linked to a 4.0-magnitude earthquake in 2011.

Due to a communication breakdown between various state agencies, the Beaver Falls Water Authority was not notified of the dumping.

Plant Engineer Jim Willard said it’s hard to react to situations such as the Youngstown dumping.

“If you know that there’s going to be a weather-related event, you can fill up those tanks, make sure they are as full as possible, and then, so that if you do have to cut down on production, you can still feed water from the tanks,” he said.

“That’s something you can prepare for. Things you can’t prepare for are emergencies, something like a train derailment or an unknown source of some kind of a contaminant being dumped into the river. Those are much more difficult to deal with because you don’t see it coming.”

In fact, the shale boom and the ensuing development of natural gas in the area also hasn’t helped, he said.

In 2009, plant officials noticed an uptick in trihalomethanes, chemical compounds regulated by EPA, Willard said.

“Did something change in the river which caused these problems?” Willard said. “And we think that there certainly were some issues. ... You look upstream and it kind of ties in with ... with really the advent of the gas ... fracking. But we have no way to prove that.”

Willard also noted an important fact when it comes to drinking-water sources: Everyone is upstream from someone else.

“That’s why, from a universal standpoint, everybody has to be diligent in how they treat things, because you’re upstream from somebody else,” he said, noting that the New Castle Sanitation Authority is located upstream from the Beaver Falls plant.

And being the ones who treat what- ever may flow downstream also isn’t easy, he said.

“Everybody takes for granted that they’re going to have water,” Willard said. “That you’re going to wake up in the morning, you’re going to turn on the faucet, and you’re going to have water. You’re going to be able to take your shower, you’re going to be able to go to the bathroom, and you’re going to be able to cook and clean, and just take for granted that it’s there.

“I don’t know that people realize how much of an effort goes into providing that routine commodity that everybody takes for granted.”

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