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SVC professor’s internship program aims to help continue gradual cleanup of local waterways

by Public Relations | February 27, 2024

LATROBE, PA — For nearly 30 years, the man-made wetlands on the Saint Vincent Archabbey property have helped improve local streams by naturally treating the water that drains from abandoned mines. Yet, other pollutants still lurk in the waterways.

Are local watersheds cleaner than they were three decades years ago? Yes, but …

“It depends on where you’re looking and what you’re looking for,” said Dr. Peter Smyntek, associate professor of Environmental Science at Saint Vincent College (SVC). “The biggest, most obvious things, such as mine drainage, are getting better. But we’re also learning about what else we need to look for. When we understand more about what’s happening in our local streams, we can focus on treatment priorities.”SVC student John Pawlak measures the water flow rate in Brush Creek in Irwin.

That is why each year Smyntek takes on a small group of student interns to monitor and analyze the interaction of mine drainage and sewage in local watersheds. Since 2017, Smyntek and his students have been collecting water and sediment samples from local streams, including Fourmile Run near the SVC campus, Brush Creek in Irwin, and Jack’s Run and Sewickley Creek in Greensburg.

The man-made wetlands of the Monastery Run Improvement Project adjacent to the SVC campus were developed in 1997 and 1998. The 20 acres of wetlands treat water that drains from abandoned mines and flows into Fourmile Run, Monastery Run and Loyalhanna Creek.

“The wetlands do a good job of removing a lot of the mine drainage,” Smyntek said. “But the idea here is there also is other nutrient pollution [from sources such as sewage and fertilizer runoff] that’s kind of being hidden by the mine drainage.”

Iron from mine drainage that seeps into streams gives the streambeds an orange sheen. When these pollutants stick to the sediment in streambeds, the levels of phosphorus, a key nutrient in the water, go down. As more mine drainage is remediated, the phosphorus levels in the stream that the mine drainage was controlling may begin to increase. This may cause harmful algal blooms in downstream aquatic systems, which lower oxygen concentrations and potentially release toxins that can affect both people and aquatic organisms.

“When you sample the water, you don’t normally sample the sediment,” Smyntek said. A few years ago, he and his interns began placing mesh-covered tiles on streambeds to collect polluted sediment for analysis.A mesh-covered tile before and after being in a mine drainage-impacted stream for one week.

Groups such as the Sewickley Creek Watershed Association, the Loyalhanna Creek Watershed Association, and the Westmoreland Conservation District may use Smyntek’s data when applying for grants to fund cleanup efforts. Earlier this month, he shared his data with the Municipal Authority of Westmoreland County officials who monitor water quality for local drinking water treatment facilities.

“The big [problems] are getting better,” Smyntek said. “If you were to drink stream water or eat a fish from it, you’re safer now than you were 10 years ago. We’re learning more about what else we need to do and what we need to consider threats that we weren’t aware of before.”

For some students, Smyntek’s internship program is their first contact with hands-on field work. They gain valuable research experience and provide a tangible service to the local community. “It’s a chance for them to literally get their feet wet,” Smyntek said with a grin.

John Pawlak, C 25, an environmental science major from North Huntingdon, was part of the internship group last summer. “Going into the internship, confidence was not something that was easy for me to find,” Pawlak wrote last December in his internship reflection. “This changed for the better as a direct result of the work [in which] I participated.”

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PHOTO 1: SVC student John Pawlak measures the water flow rate in Brush Creek in Irwin.

PHOTO 2: A mesh-covered tile before and after being in a mine drainage-impacted stream for one week.