Effort aimed at collecting, sharing water quality data in gas drilling region

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. – The impact of natural gas drilling on waterways, the best direction for future water quality monitoring and efforts by a high school volunteer group were a few of the topics featured at this year’s Shale Network conference May 12 and 13.

The Shale Network is a collaborative effort to collect and analyze data on water quality in the Marcellus Shale drilling region. This year’s workshop drew about 80 people, including faculty, researchers, government agency employees, concerned citizens, nonprofit organization participants, high school students and natural gas industry representatives.

This was the third year for the conference, which the Shale Network, a National Science Foundation project, hosted through Penn State’s Earth and Environmental Systems Institute (EESI). The focus was on what researchers have learned so far about the impact of natural gas drilling on water quality and where future efforts should be directed.

“Bringing all of these people together in one place gives us a great opportunity to learn from the big picture rather than individual small studies,” said Susan Brantley, distinguished professor of geosciences and a Shale Network organizer.

“A key focus of the Shale Network continues to be sharing as much water quality data as possible,” she said. “Fortunately, this issue has been getting more attention. For example, this year was the first year the Shale Network workshop attracted representatives from natural gas companies. We’re hopeful that by addressing this issue collectively, we’ll be more effective at establishing baseline data and catching problems early on as well as documenting cumulative problems.”

The Shale Network is a joint effort by faculty and researchers at Penn State, the University of Pittsburgh, Dickinson College and the Consortium of Universities for the Advancement of Hydrologic Science Inc. (CUAHSI). The network works with state agencies, volunteer groups, representatives of private companies and CUAHSI, an NSF-funded consortium that provides services to the academic community.

Radisav Vidic, chairman of the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of Pittsburgh, said that so far what researchers in the network have found is a lack of systematic data collection that could be used to detect problems if and when they do happen.

“There is almost no methane concentration data for much of Pennsylvania. That is troubling,” Vidic said.

Vidic said that is one of the reasons efforts by volunteer groups are so important.

“Everybody appreciates the volunteer data sets,” Vidic said. “I think we should encourage the volunteers to keep doing what they’re doing.”

Data collected includes concentrations of elements such as bromide, strontium or barium – potential indicators of natural gas drilling having an impact on water quality. The software CUAHSI designed allows that information to be tracked over time to assess whether gas drilling is having any impact on water quality.

Hydraulic fracturing or fracking involves drilling thousands of feet into the ground, first vertically and then horizontally. Water and chemicals are then pushed into the earth to release the natural gas trapped in the shale. The process has raised concerns about the potential pollution of nearby waterways from spills or improperly sealed pipes.

Among the initiatives featured at this year’s conference is the outreach Shale Network has been doing with high school classes, including a hands-on lesson in water quality tests researchers from the University of Pittsburgh did with students from Butler Area Senior High School.

At Penn State, researchers from EESI have been working with a group of State College Area High School students and teachers to collect and analyze water samples from Black Moshannon State Park. The ongoing initiative is giving the students the opportunity to collect water samples, analyze data and write about their work.

“These kids were troopers this year, working with associates from Penn State to collect this data in the field, under some uncomfortable weather conditions,” said Eugene Ruocchio, an earth systems science teacher at State High who has been working with the students. “And they did it because they recognize the importance of the data they are collecting. They are looking forward to continuing their work next school year.”

Ruocchio said presenting their work at the poster show really helped the students understand that what they have been doing is more than just a fun, out-of-class exercise.

“This conference matured the students quickly, allowing them to see how they were taking part in a greater good,” he said. “This gave them more desire to continue the work next year.”

Funded by a four-year grant from the National Science Foundation, the Shale Network is in its final year. Researchers are looking at options for continuing to fund the project, and the data will continue to be available through CUAHSI.

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Last Updated May 19, 2014