Intelligent Energy

PA study uncovers no hydrofracking pollution

PA study uncovers no hydrofracking pollution

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We've spent a lot of time covering how shale gas mining impacts drinking water. Incidents of contamination have been highlighted, but there is also research portraying the opposite scenario: no pollution.

Penn State University's Thomas Murphy says that groundwater testing has exposed preexisting health risks.

We've spent a lot of time covering how shale gas mining impacts drinking water. Incidents of contamination have been highlighted, but there is also some recent research portraying the opposite scenario: no pollution.

In March, the Center for Rural Pennsylvania publishing a report on the impact of Marcellus gas drilling on private wells in the State. The Marcellus shale formation is a massive geological formation that extends throughout Pennsylvania; it is believe to contain a vast reserve of natural gas.

It's possible that estimates of the natural gas reserve's volume were vastly overstated, but there's been a significant increase in mining activity over the past several years. Hydraulic fracturing or hydrofracking, is a technique used to extract gas from the formation, which has become highly controversial due to its potential to pollute groundwater.

The Center for Rural Pennsylvania, a state entity overseen by a board of university professors and politicians, commissioned the Penn State Marcellus Center for Outreach and Research to take a series of baseline water samples of private wells and springs in areas where mining was happening. The University's conclusion was that samples were approximate to samples it took five years prior.

There's one major caveat - the study's methodology. The report itself notes: "The overall study design, with only two sample times and a limited number of control wells, was not robust enough to discern subtle water quality changes given the large amount of natural water quality variability related to geology, season, and climatic factors. Where comparable, results from both phases of the study produced similar results that can be used to infer some important conclusions and policy recommendations."

Penn State researchers did find similar levels of biological contaminants and methane [20 percent of wells] from prior testing, said co-director Thomas Murphy. "What was found in that process was 40 percent [of wells] were impacted by some sort of health related concern."

Tens of thousands of baseline test have been performed as energy companies work across the state, in radiuses from 1,000 feet up to a mile away from gas wells, Murphy noted.  Landowners are given the results.

"The way the law written in Pennsylvania is a presumption of guilt. If there's a change in water quality landowner could potentially go back and call them out on that," Murphy said. He suggested also that the information uncovered in testing actually may improve groundwater quality by exposing preexisting contaminants.

(Photo credit: Penn State)

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David Worthington

Contributing Editor

David Worthington has written for BetaNews, eWeek, PC World, Technologizer and ZDNet. Formerly, he was a senior editor at SD Times. He holds a business degree from Temple University. He is based in New York. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure