Digital TDS Conductivity Meter: COM-100
Digital TDS Conductivity Meter
w/ Built-In Thermometer

In areas of the United States where mining coal puts food on the tables of local workers’ families while also providing always-in-demand coal to power plants around the country, an interruption in the issuance of mining permits makes a lot of people nervous.

Conversely, an interruption in the issuance of mining permits in those regions also makes environmental ‘watchdogs’ like Rick Handshoe who has nothing to do with coal mining very happy since they believe improper, or just plain illegal, mining techniques destroy the quality of well and surface water near mining operations.

How do average people keep tabs on big business? Some use conductivity meters… and call for professional testing when the readings get high.

On a personal note, it saddens all of us at Water Testing Blog to know that citizens of the United States, or any country, for that matter, must sometimes decide between having safe, clean water in their environment and employment opportunities in their community.

HUEYSVILLE — Every Sunday, Rick Handshoe strolls from his mobile home across a two-lane paved highway, down the hill to Raccoon Creek, which is sometimes orange, sometimes silty, sometimes clear.

He notes whether any frogs or crawdads can be found, dead or alive, and he notes how much water is flowing from the pond built at the head of the Floyd County creek by a coal company about five years ago.

Handshoe has been watching his creek ebb and flow, die and come alive and die again, as the cycle of blasting, mining and reclamation has continued on land surrounding his retirement home. Until a year ago, his observations were just that; he couldn’t afford to send periodic water samples to a laboratory to find out what minerals were leeching into his creek.

But for the past year, Handshoe has been armed with a new weapon: a conductivity meter given to him by the Sierra Club.

The small beige instrument, which looks like an oversize digital thermometer, measures the amount of dissolved minerals and ions by sending an electrical current through the water. It is cheap, compared to lab testing, and it can be used over and over.

And Handshoe has been using it every Sunday for a year, measuring the microSiemens of electricity passing through his water at 500, 600, 1,200, 1,600, and marking them on a calendar.

A conductivity meter won’t tell you what’s in the water, just that there’s stuff in it.

Coal industry advocates say that’s the problem. They perform extensive tests and report monthly averages to the state over the life of their permits. They know how much manganese, iron and other minerals they’re discharging. They know how alkaline their water is, and they adjust additives every month to try to keep the water pollution within permitted levels.

But they say the conductivity benchmark of 200 to 500 microSiemens is impossible to meet — by a coal mine or any other industry. Even runoff from building a house or salting a road in winter can raise the conductivity of nearby streams.

“I would like to think that you’ve got more than a guy rolling around with a hand-held conductivity meter calling that real science,” said Paul Jackson of Perry County Coal, a subsidiary of TECO Coal.

The Sierra Club provided Handshoe’s conductivity meter a year ago, before EPA benchmarks were handed down in April, and the club itself has tested water in Eastern Kentucky.

The club’s tests of Raccoon Creek in November, done as a favor to Handshoe, found high levels of aluminum, manganese and zinc; high alkalinity; and the presence of caustic soda, or lye, added to the water by the coal company to lower the acidity of the water.

Sierra Club Water Sentinels head Tim Guilfoile said he was glad not to find high levels of mercury or selenium, which can cause deformities and reproductive problems in aquatic life.

Clewett said the legal realm of conductivity isn’t a sure thing yet, so it’s unclear whether benchmarks set in April will stick.

“Things haven’t really shaken out there yet,” he said.

If they do stick, then environmentalists might have a cheaper tool in their box, but time will tell. ( source )

Yep. Simple testing using basic instrumentation such as conductivity meters can, in some cases, provide the right amount of ‘proof’ needed by local officials to begin investigating potential sources of well and ground water pollution.

TDS Meter: Digital Pen Style
Digital Pen Style TDS Meter

So… High conductivity means water is polluted?

No, not at all. Not in the classic sense that the water contains harmful contaminants. As the article pointed out, runoff from salt applied to roads in the winter to prevent icing can elevate conductivity levels in local water ways.

Those elevated levels, however, ought to dissipate at the appropriate moments. On the other hand, if high levels of conductivity continue over a prolonged period of time — for no apparent reason — one may want to seek the assistance of a professional, certified water testing service.

So… Low conductivity readings mean water is safe?

Not at all! Conductivity measures the ability of water to pass an electrical charge via ions. Some pollutants will not possess conductive capabilities representative of the true danger they present.

Need an example? Harmful strains of bacteria will most likely have little, if any, effect on the conductivity of drinking water… but would you really want to drink a glass of water if you already knew the water contained harmful strains of bacteria — even if a conductivity meter gave a low reading when testing the water?