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Word bubble using news headlines from Jackson study release

Duke Study Prompts Confusing Headlines

If you are like me and start your morning work routine by scrolling through the daily Marcellus Shale news with a good cup of coffee, then you are probably just as confused as the rest of us about the recent Duke University study results regarding shale gas drilling. Just take a look at the list below and try to interpret strictly from the news headlines what it is Nathaniel Warner, Dr. Robert Jackson, and colleagues actually found:

  • New research shows no Marcellus Shale pollution (CNBC.com)
  • Marcellus Shale Study Shows Fluids Likely Seeping Into Pennsylvania Drinking Water (Huffington Post)
  • Rising Shale Water Complicates Fracking Debate (NPR)
  • Marcellus Brine Migration Likely Natural, Not Man-Made (Oil and Gas Online)
  • Duke study finds possible pathways from Marcellus shale to drinking water … (Akron Beacon Journal)
  • Fracking Did Not Sully Aquifers, Limited Study Finds (New York Times -blog)
  • Water contamination from shale fracking may follow natural routes (Examiner.com)
  • Duke study: Fluids likely seeping into PA’s drinking water from Marcellus Shale (News & Observer)
  • Findings are mixed in fracking-water study (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)
  • New study: Fluids from Marcellus Shale likely seeping into PA drinking water (Syracuse.com)
  • New research shows no Marcellus Shale pollution (The Wall Street Journal)
  • Marcellus Brine Migration Likely Natural, Not Man-Made (Duke University)
Word bubble created using Tagxedo showing news headlines from Jackson study release

No wonder this entire issue is so contentious. Not only is the science still evolving, but then you have to waft through the countless takes on what the research means. Perhaps we should take a cue from our childhood years and get the story “straight from the horse’s mouth.” E.g. try reading the official results (PDF) published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Even the abstract below will tell you a lot more about the implications of the results than any truncated news headline could:

The debate surrounding the safety of shale gas development in the Appalachian Basin has generated increased awareness of drinking water quality in rural communities. Concerns include the potential for migration of stray gas, metal-rich formation brines, and hydraulic fracturing and/or flowback fluids to drinking water aquifers. A critical question common to these environmental risks is the hydraulic connectivity between the shale gas formations and the overlying shallow drinking water aquifers. We present geochemical evidence from northeastern Pennsylvania showing that pathways, unrelated to recent drilling activities, exist in some locations between deep underlying formations and shallow drinking water aquifers. Integration of chemical data (Br, Cl, Na, Ba, Sr, and Li) and isotopic ratios (87Sr∕86Sr, 2H∕H, 18O∕16O, and 228Ra∕226Ra) from this and previous studies in 426 shallow groundwater samples and 83 northern Appalachian brine samples suggest that mixing relationships between shallow ground water and a deep formation brine causes groundwater salinization in some locations. The strong geochemical fingerprint in the salinized (Cl > 20 mg∕L) groundwater sampled from the Alluvium, Catskill, and Lock Haven aquifers suggests possible migration of Marcellus brine through naturally occurring pathways. The occurrences of saline water do not correlate with the location of shale-gas wells and are consistent with reported data before rapid shale-gas development in the region; however, the presence of these fluids suggests conductive pathways and specific geostructural and/or hydrodynamic regimes in northeastern Pennsylvania that are at increased risk for contamination of shallow drinking water resources, particularly by fugitive gases, because of natural hydraulic connections to deeper formations.

In all fairness, this study is very technical, so writing a catching but accurate news headline is extremely difficult. It is important to keep in mind, however, that summaries written for the lay public will often contain a piece of the translator’s perspective – like snippets of foreign code embedded in the story.


By Samantha Malone, MPH, CPH – Communications Specialist, FracTracker; DrPH Student, University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health, Environmental and Occupational Health department