Rock water: the unfiltered truth

Published by Annabelle Chipps, Date: May 2, 2024
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Slippery Rock’s water, both in town and at the university, is notorious for its taste and odor, known by students as “Rock Water”. 

These “aesthetic” issues are due to a large amount of iron and coal in the ground, a lack of funding and slow scientific advancement. 

The Rocket visited a water treatment plant at the municipal authority to investigate the quality and what is being done to fix it. 

The water tower

SRU’s iconic water tower does not hold any water inside. There is a tank of water underneath the ground it sits on, but no water in the structure itself. 

Decades ago, SRU pumped its own water from campus grounds. 

“That kind of overwhelmed the university,” Patrick Burkhart, an SRU geology professor of 27 years, said.

As the school grew, they transitioned to using the same water as the town. 

The structure is now used for decoration. It also supports antennae for cable companies, which the university receives compensation for. 

Municipal water is instead stored in three locations across town: one under the tower, one behind The Heights apartment complex and one on the hill by Saint Peter’s Church. 

“You have to have water held up high to run down the hill and put pressure into your shower,”  Burkhart said. 

The quality 

Rock Water tastes the way it does due to vast amounts of coal and iron in the ground. Some also attribute it to the town’s limestone plant. 

“Coal is the semi decayed plant matter from 300 million years ago from a 300 million year old swamp. So swamp water stinks and coal stinks. The black shales that held the water for the coal,  Burkhart said. “So you have all these stinky rocks in the ground around here.”

“You can get trapped into this circumstance of people loving the blessing of stinky rocks in some regards and hating the curse of stinky rocks in other regards. But you guys don’t get to choose what rocks are underground. You have to deal with what is here,” he said. 

The water is not dirty by government standards as the plant adheres strictly to guidelines. 

“I have gotten the combined complaints about how water is horrible,” Plant Operator Andrew Ireland said.  “The problem with that is nobody wants to pay any more than they have to for water.”

The Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) was passed in 1974 to ensure populated areas have safe water to drink. 

The quality is evaluated by primary, secondary and aesthetic concerns. 

Primary contaminants include things that are extremely harmful, such as lead, poison or bacteria.  

“You get into secondaries, they watch for manganese iron, things of that nature,” Plant Operator Andrew Ireland said. “They want to monitor them, they want to regulate them…the [chemicals do not]  make it to where the water is unsafe to drink or anything of that nature. ”

Issues with Rock water fall in line with aesthetic concerns. “A lot of the third level stuff is the things that they don’t know enough about [and] they’re requiring us to do sampling on so they can gather more information,” he said. 

Governmental scientists use this information to try and figure out what minerals or dissolved solids are in which areas. They hope to discover how to filter them out in a cheaper and faster manner. 

“I treat the water to the best that my facility can treat it,” Ireland said. “I’m filtering out all of the contamination, filtering out well within my regulated contaminant levels that I have to meet for safe water to be discharged into this drinking water system.”

Plant operators work everyday to ensure the water remains safe. 

“Everyday no matter the holiday, Christmas, New Year’s, somebody has to come in here and do a pH recording and take all the daily numbers…every 24 hour period, no matter what…we’ll test for chlorine and pH every day of the week,” Ireland said. “Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays I do sampling for hardness, manganese and iron as well.” 

Ireland is only required to do the second set of sampling once a month, but instead does it three times a week. Every Tuesday, the plant checks their filters. 

“That’s something that we actually just started doing here in October as a way of trying to be ahead of the game for making sure that we can produce the best quality water that we can with what we are able to do here,” he said. 

The process

Wells are used to extract moisture from the ground in Slippery Rock, which is then transported to the plant for treatment. 

Two are located on the Northern side of town, and one is right at the plant. 

“It’s recharged by rain, but it’s several hundred feet deep, and so the estimates are that it fell as rain about a decade or two ago—not last week,” Burkhart said. 

From there, water is transported to the facility. It then goes through a series of pre-treatment steps. 

Filters process large contaminants and debris out of the water. Each component is specifically designed to remove certain chemicals. 

“The green sand works on the manganese,” Burkhart said. 

Next, chlorine is used for disinfection and chemicals like sodium are added to adjust the pH.

“I keep my chlorine as low as I can keep it to still maintain within my permit,” Ireland said. “We are removing more than what our permit actually requests us to move to help with the aesthetics the best we can.”

Afterwards, softeners are added to reduce harshness.“We typically soften it with Sodium Chloride,” Ireland said. 

From there, water is stored and distributed to buildings across Slippery Rock. 

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Annabelle Chipps is the News Editor for The Rocket. This is her second year on staff, the first of which earned her 1st and 2nd place for best overall feature in the Society for Collegiate Journalists national contest. She is double majoring in Secondary English Education and Creative Writing. She loves to read and pet her cat.

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