The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

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January 15, 2014

Wake-up call for region | Are we ready if our water is contaminated?

JOHNSTOWN — We tend to take water for granted. Turn the handle, and the treasured liquid begins to flow freely from the faucet.

But what would happen if you were prohibited from using that abundant supply of water?

That’s what our neighbors in West Virginia have had to endure for the past week after a chemical used in coal processing leaked into the Elk River, tainting the water supply of upwards of 300,000 people. On Monday, water restrictions for some residents of Charleston, W.Va., were being lifted.

That accident, and its repercussions, we believe, should set off all kinds of alarm bells for municipal authorities in this region.

The Laurel Highlands, like many areas in West Virginia, is dotted with coal mines, both deep and strip varieties. There also are many fuel storage facilities and heavy industry that probably uses some sort of hazardous chemicals in their day-to-day operations. Those chemicals could cause problems similar to those in Charleston if an accident released them into our drinking water supply.

And with the boom in natural gas production in the region since the discovery of the Marcellus Shale formation, there has been a lot of discussion about frack water. We know that chemicals are being pumped into the earth along with the water, and the contaminated water is being recovered and stored in tanks and ponds. What we’re not sure of is what would happen to our water supply should that contaminated liquid infiltrate our drinking water.

Are there contingency plans in place if a chemical spill or other hazardous material accident was to happen somewhere in the region? Are our water supplies safe?

Many groups and organizations in our region have worked very hard to improve the water quality here. Many of our once orange-colored streams and rivers, caused by decades of untreated and unabated acid-mine drainage, have been reborn into clean waterways that support aquatic life. Several fresh-water streams that have been treated for acid-mine drainage have rebounded beyond expectation and now boast healthy populations of fish and amphibians.

The Little Conemaugh River is showing signs of improvement, thanks to a $15 million water treatment plant in St. Michael.

And the region’s crowning achievement was when the Stonycreek River was brought back to life from the brink of certain death by pollution and named Pennsylvania’s River of the Year in 2012 by the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.

Canada geese and mallard ducks have taken up residence on the Stonycreek as it flows through downtown Johnstown. Fish and reptiles can be found in the waterway. White-water enthusiasts flock to the area to run the rapids on the Stonycreek, and tubing is available on a section of the river during the summer.

It would be a shame to see all that hard work and effort be washed away by negligence. All efforts must be taken to make sure that the nightmare that happened in Charleston is not repeated in the Laurel Highlands.

Water is the lifeblood of everything on earth. Without clean water, there would be no plants, animals or humans. We must do everything within our power to protect this most vital and fragile element

of life.

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