Skip to main content
U.S. flag

An official website of the United States government

Effects of high salinity wastewater discharges on unionid mussels in the Allegheny River, Pennsylvania

July 29, 2015

We examined the effect of high salinity wastewater (brine) from oil and natural gas drilling on freshwater mussels in the Allegheny River, Pennsylvania, during 2012. Mussel cages (N = 5 per site) were deployed at two sites upstream and four sites downstream of a brine treatment facility on the Allegheny River. Each cage contained 20 juvenile northern riffleshell mussels Epioblasma torulosa rangiana). Continuous specific conductance and temperature data were recorded by water quality probes deployed at each site. To measure the amount of mixing throughout the entire study area, specific conductance surveys were completed two times during low-flow conditions along transects from bank to bank that targeted upstream (reference) reaches, a municipal wastewater treatment plant discharge upstream of the brine-facility discharge, the brine facility, and downstream reaches. Specific conductance data indicated that high specific conductance water from the brine facility (4,000–12,000 µS/cm; mean 7,846) compared to the reference reach (103–188 µS/cm; mean 151) is carried along the left descending bank of the river and that dilution of the discharge via mixing does not occur until 0.5 mi (805 m) downstream. Juvenile northern riffleshell mussel survival was severely impaired within the high specific conductance zone (2 and 34% at and downstream of the brine facility, respectively) and at the municipal wastewater treatment plant (21%) compared to background (84%). We surveyed native mussels (family Unionidae) at 10 transects: 3 upstream, 3 within, and 4 downstream of the high specific conductance zone. Unionid mussel abundance and diversity were lower for all transects within and downstream of the high conductivity zone compared to upstream. The results of this study clearly demonstrate in situ toxicity to juvenile northern riffleshell mussels, a federally endangered species, and to the native unionid mussel assemblage located downstream of a brine discharge to the Allegheny River.