Rough Waters Ahead

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has been essential to cleaning up and protecting water quality in the Allegheny, the Monongahela and the Ohio rivers, collectively known as the “Three Rivers” of Western Pennsylvania, but the Trump administration has proposed deep cuts to the EPA’s budget. Rough Waters Ahead provides case studies of how the EPA has been critical to ensuring clean water in the Three Rivers basin, and why the proposed budget could undermine the agency’s ability to deter pollution and restore iconic waterbodies such as the Three Rivers.

Katherine Eshel

Policy Analyst

Western Pennsylvania’s Three Rivers – the Allegheny, Monongahela and Ohio – are critical to the health and welfare of our families, our communities, and wildlife. Approximately 3.5 million people reside in the Pennsylvania portion of the Ohio River basin and its headwaters, a region that also attracts at least 18 million travelers each year.

Clean water in the Three Rivers is vital for wildlife, drinking water safety, recreation, and agriculture. Yet, for generations, the rivers have been polluted by industry, mining and urban runoff.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has been essential to efforts to clean up the Three Rivers and restore the watershed to health – supporting and working with state and local efforts to keep pollution out of our waterways, hold polluters accountable, restore degraded waterways to health, and study and monitor waterways to ensure their future health and safety.

That progress is now in jeopardy. The Trump administration has proposed deep and devastating cuts to the EPA’s budget. Even if the president’s proposed cuts are scaled back by Congress, they would still have profound negative impacts on the agency’s ability to deter pollution from industrial facilities, agriculture, sewage treatment plants, runoff and other sources, while undercutting efforts to restore the Three Rivers.

America should not go back to the bad old days, when whole stretches of river in the Three Rivers basin were so polluted as to be considered biologically dead. We need a strong EPA with sufficient resources to support local cleanup efforts and partner with states and communities to protect and restore the Three Rivers.

The Three Rivers are being protected and restored to health with funding and effort from the EPA. The EPA has worked to:

  • Limit bacteria pollution in Allegheny County’s Pine Creek and North Park Lake: In 2008, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (PA DEP) found Pine Creek and its tributaries, including North Park Lake, were so polluted with bacteria that they could not be considered safe for recreation. The EPA worked with the state to develop a “pollution diet” for the Pine Creek watershed, which was finalized in March 2013. Thanks to the cleanup plan, the Pine Creek watershed should achieve water quality standards – unless budget cuts undermine the “diet.”
  • Support the development of green infrastructure in Pittsburgh: The City of Pittsburgh and its partners are working to address the city’s flash flooding and sewer overflow problems by developing “green stormwater infrastructure,” features that mimic the natural environment to absorb rainfall. The EPA provided technical assistance from 2012 to 2015 to help develop design guidelines for green stormwater infrastructure. This work helped give rise to new installations like a rain garden at the Crescent Early Childhood Center.
  • Hold Consol Energy accountable for water pollution: Consol Energy illegally dumped mining wastewater from the Bailey mine complex to Ohio River tributaries in Greene and Washington counties from 2005 to 2012. The EPA, the state and the U.S. Department of Justice required Consol Energy to pay $3 million in penalties in a 2016 settlement. Consol Energy also agreed to $5.3 million in system improvements that will cut discharges of dissolved coal mining pollutants by more than 2.5 million pounds per year.
  • Clean up legacy mining pollution on the Little Conemaugh Creek in Cambria County: An abandoned mine located near St. Michael in Cambria County discharged 3,000 gallons of mine drainage each minute to the Little Conemaugh River from the 1960s until recently. When Rosebud Mining Co. requested a permit to mine underlying reserves, the EPA worked with PA DEP to develop a permit that included a cleanup project that cut iron loads to the creek by 98 percent, aluminum loads by 100 percent, and manganese loads by more than 50 percent.
  • Clean up the Osborne Landfill Superfund site in Mercer County: The state closed the Osborne Landfill in Mercer County in the 1970s for accepting industrial waste without a permit. Shortly afterward, the EPA and state investigators found that toxic substances were leaching from the landfill to nearby soil and surface water, as well as a nearby fishing stream. The EPA added the site to the Superfund list of national cleanup priorities in 1983, leading to removal of hazardous waste and extension of a municipal water line to secure nearby residents’ access to safe drinking water. After decades of cleanup, the site was ready for reuse in 2010 and most of the nearby waterways are now healthy enough to support aquatic life.
  • Support research to understand the link between resource extraction and water contamination in the Allegheny River watershed: EPA researchers investigated the source of bromide pollution in the Allegheny River that was giving rise to the formation of trihalomethanes, chemicals associated with cancer; similar pollution in the Monongahela River forced state environmental officials to repeatedly issue drinking water advisories for 325,000 residents in the Pittsburgh area in 2008 and 2009. The EPA found that treatment facilities that accepted fracking wastewater, as well as coal power plants with flue-gas desulfurization, contributed most of the bromide contamination on the Allegheny River and its tributary, Blacklick Creek.
  • Provide students and teachers the opportunity to learn about their local watersheds: Each year, more than 40 schools in Western Pennsylvania, such as Titusville Middle School, Seneca Valley Senior High School and the West Mifflin Area High School, participate in the Creek Connections project of Allegheny College, which provides equipment, training and assistance for middle and secondary schools in western Pennsylvania to study local water chemistry. Allegheny College received an $80,668 environmental education grant from the EPA, through a program that the Trump administration has proposed to eliminate, to improve their water quality monitoring protocol and strengthen the program.

Table ES-1. Clean Water in the Three Rivers Depends on the EPA

The Three Rivers Are Cleaner Because the EPA: The EPA Continues to Protect Clean Water by:
Set limits on bacterial pollution to the Pine Creek watershed in Allegheny County Supervising pollution control across the basin
Funded the development of design criteria for green infrastructure in Pittsburgh Funding pollution prevention measures in municipalities
Ordered Consol Energy to improve water management and monitoring to correct its violations of the Clean Water Act Ensuring compliance with pollution standards to limit releases of mining wastewater to waterways
Developing an innovative permit that cleaned up legacy mining pollution in Little Conemaugh River in Cambria County Supervising and enforcing pollution discharge permits across the state
Supervised cleanup at the Osborne Landfill Superfund site in Mercer County Funding and overseeing 65 ongoing Superfund cleanups
Researched the effects of fracking wastewater disposal and coal-fired power plants on public drinking water sources on the Allegheny River Conducting and supporting research into the effects of water pollution on human health and into new pollution control methods
Funded a program that provides students and teachers with equipment, training and assistance to study local water chemistry in Western Pennsylvania Supporting environmental literacy and increasing the public’s understanding of the impact of human activity on waterways

The Trump administration’s proposed cuts to the EPA budget put these and other critical functions in danger – threatening the future health of the Three Rivers.

  • Under the administration’s proposal, water-related programs run directly by the EPA would be slashed by 34 percent, hobbling efforts to prevent runoff pollution, monitor water quality, establish pollution limits, protect watersheds and wetlands, and pursue polluters.
  • In addition, many federal grants from the EPA to state governments for clean water would be slashed by 30 percent or more – making it more difficult for already cash-strapped state agencies to do their jobs and delaying important locally led cleanup efforts. For example, the proposed budget would end grants to state governments and tribal agencies to address pollution from farms, stormwater runoff and other dispersed sources.
  • Research and development funding would be cut by 47 percent, limiting support for scientists, residents and local communities trying to understand the ever-changing threats facing their waterways. For instance, the EPA’s Safe and Sustainable Water Resources research program, which supports science and technology research to protect drinking water, would be cut by a third.
  • Overall, the EPA budget would be reduced by 31 percent.

Even if Congress makes some of these budget cuts less drastic, the Three Rivers will still suffer without full funding of EPA programs.


Figure ES-1. Estimated EPA Grant Funding Losses to Pennsylvania if Trump Administration’s Proposed Budget Is Enacted (Figure Shows Cuts to Selected Programs Based on Most Recent Year for Which Data Are Available)

Note: Estimates are calculated assuming EPA budget cuts affect states by the same percentage. Reductions are based on grants from most recent fiscal year. “Water pollution control grants” are Section 106 grants, slated for a 30 percent cut. “Nonpoint pollution control grants” are Section 319 grants, cut entirely in the administration’s proposed budget. “Drinking water protection and enforcement grants” are Public Water System Supervision grants, cut by 30 percent.

The job of cleaning up and protecting the Three Rivers is not finished. Continuing pollution from agricultural, industrial and mining sources – along with the emergence of new pollution threats from new classes of industrial and household chemicals – call for continued vigilance and action. Only a well-funded EPA can continue the region’s legacy of progress in cleaning up the Three Rivers and ensure that its streams and rivers are healthy and safe for us and future generations to enjoy.

other uses, funding for the EPA and the state and local efforts it supports should be increased, not cut. For example, aging drinking water and sewage infrastructure across the nation are in need of replacement, at a cost of $600 billion over the next 20 years.

Continued progress in cleaning up existing sources of pollution and addressing new sources of contamination requires increased funding for the EPA’s clean water efforts. The agency needs resources to establish pollution limits that protect human health and to make sure that polluters abide by those pollution standards. The agency needs money to continue its critical role in supporting cleanup of past pollution and restoring damaged rivers and streams so that they can provide clean water. The EPA also needs funding to help it identify and respond to future threats to clean water. Ensuring that people who live, work and play in and around the Three Rivers have access to clean water requires full funding for the EPA.


Katherine Eshel

Policy Analyst

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