WV Field Visits 2013

H 2 O Where Did It Go?

By Mary Ellen Cassidy, Community Outreach Coordinator, FracTracker Alliance

A Water Use Series

Many of us do our best to stay current with the latest research related to water impacts from unconventional drilling activities, especially those related to hydraulic fracturing.  However, after attending presentations and reading recent publications, I realized that I knew too little about questions like:

  • How much water is used by hydraulic fracturing activities, in general?
  • How much of that can eventually be used for drinking water again?
  • How much is removed from the hydrologic cycle permanently?

To help answer these kinds of questions, FracTracker will be running a series of articles that look at the issue of drilling-related water consumption, the potential community impacts, and recommendations to protect community water resources.

Ceres Report

We have posted several articles on water use and scarcity in the past here, here, here and here.  This article in the series will share information primarily from Monika Freyman’s recent Ceres report, Hydraulic Fracturing & Water Stress: Water Demand by the Numbers, February 2014.  If you hunger for maps, graphs and stats, you will feast on this report. The study looks at oil and gas wells that were hydraulically fractured between January 2011 and May 2013 based on records from FracFocus.

Class 2 UI Wells

Class 2 UI Wells

Water scarcity from unconventional drilling is a serious concern. According to Ceres analysis, horizontal gas production is far more water intensive than vertical drilling.  Also, the liquids that return to the surface from unconventional drilling are often disposed of through deep well injection, which takes the water out of the water cycle permanently.   By contrast, water uses are also high for other industries, such as agriculture and electrical generation.  However, most of the water used in agriculture and for cooling in power plants eventually returns to the hydrological cycle.  It makes its way back into local rivers and water sources.

In the timeframe of this study, Ceres reports that:

  • 97 billion gallons of water were used, nearly half of it in Texas, followed by Pennsylvania, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Colorado and North Dakota, equivalent to the annual water need  of 55 cities with populations of ~ 5000 each.
  • Over 30 counties used at least one billion gallons of water.
  • Nearly half of the wells hydraulically fractured since 2011 were in regions with high or extremely high water stress, and over 55% were in areas experiencing drought.
  • Over 36% of the 39,294 hydraulically fractured wells in the study overlay regions experiencing groundwater depletion.
  • The largest volume of hydraulic fracturing water, 25 billion gallons, was handled by service provider, Halliburton.

Water withdrawals required for hydraulic fracturing activities have several worrisome impacts. For high stress and drought-impacted regions, these withdrawals now compete with demands for drinking water supplies, as well as other industrial and agricultural needs in many communities.  Often this demand falls upon already depleted and fragile aquifers and groundwater.  Groundwater withdrawals can cause land subsidence and also reduce surface water supplies. (USGS considers ground and surface waters essentially a single source due to their interconnections).  In some areas, rain and snowfall can recharge groundwater supplies in decades, but in other areas this could take centuries or longer.  In other areas, aquifers are confined and considered nonrenewable.   (We will look at these and additional impact in more detail in our next installments.)

Challenges of documenting water consumption and scarcity

Tracking water volumes and locations turns out to be a particularly difficult process.  A combination of factors confuse the numbers, like conflicting data sets or no data,  state records with varying criteria, definitions and categorization for waste, unclear or no records for water volumes used in refracturing wells or for well and pipeline maintenance.

Along with these impediments, “chain of custody” also presents its own obstacles for attempts at water bookkeeping. Unconventional drilling operations, from water sourcing to disposal, are often shared by many companies on many levels.  There are the operators making exploration and production decisions who are ultimately liable for environmental impacts of production. There are the service providers, like Halliburton mentioned above, who oversee field operations and supply chains. (Currently, service providers are not required to report to FracFocus.)  Then, these providers subcontract to specialists such as sand mining operations.  For a full cradle-to-grave assessment of water consumption, you would face a tangle of custody try tracking water consumption through that.

To further complicate the tracking of this industry’s water, FracFocus itself has several limitations. It was launched in April 2011 as a voluntary chemical disclosure registry for companies developing unconventional oil and gas wells. Two years later, eleven states direct or allow well operators and service companies to report their chemical use to this online registry. Although it is primarily intended for chemical disclosure, many studies, like several of those cited in this article, use its database to also track water volumes, simply because it is one of the few centralized sources of drilling water information.  A 2013 Harvard Law School study found serious limitations with FracFocus, citing incomplete and inaccurate disclosures, along with a truly cumbersome search format.  The study states, “the registry does not allow searching across forms – readers are limited to opening one PDF at a time. This prevents site managers, states, and the public from catching many mistakes or failures to report. More broadly, the limited search function sharply limits the utility of having a centralized data cache.”

To further complicate water accounting, state regulations on water withdrawal permits vary widely.  The 2011 study by Resources for the Future uses data from the Energy Information Agency to map permit categories.  Out of 30 states surveyed, 25 required some form of permit, but only half of these require permits for all withdrawals. Regulations also differ in states based on whether the withdrawal is from surface or groundwater.  (Groundwater is generally less regulated and thus at increased risk of depletion or contamination.)  Some states like Kentucky exempt the oil and gas industry from requiring withdrawal permits for both surface and groundwater sources.

Can we treat and recycle oil and gas wastewater to provide potable water?

WV Field Visits 2013Will recycling unconventional drilling wastewater be the solution to fresh water withdrawal impacts?  Currently, it is not the goal of the industry to recycle the wastewater to potable standards, but rather to treat it for future hydraulic fracturing purposes.  If the fluid immediately flowing back from the fractured well (flowback) or rising back to the surface over time (produced water) meets a certain quantity and quality criteria, it can be recycled and reused in future operations.  Recycled wastewater can also be used for certain industrial and agricultural purposes if treated properly and authorized by regulators.  However, if the wastewater is too contaminated (with salts, metals, radioactive materials, etc.), the amount of energy required to treat it, even for future fracturing purposes, can be too costly both in finances and in additional resources consumed.

It is difficult to find any peer reviewed case studies on using recycled wastewater for public drinking purposes, but perhaps an effective technology that is not cost prohibitive for impacted communities is in the works. In an article in the Dallas Business Journal, Brent Halldorson, a Roanoke-based Water Management Company COO, was asked if the treated wastewater was safe to drink.  He answered, “We don’t recommend drinking it. Pure distilled water is actually, if you drink it, it’s not good for you because it will actually absorb minerals out of your body.”

Can we use sources other than freshwater?

How about using municipal wastewater for hydraulic fracturing?  The challenge here is that once the wastewater is used for hydraulic fracturing purposes, we’re back to square one. While return estimates vary widely, some of the injected fluids stay within the formation.  The remaining water that returns to the surface then needs expensive treatment and most likely will be disposed in underground injection wells, thus taken out of the water cycle for community needs, whereas municipal wastewater would normally be treated and returned to rivers and streams.

Could brackish groundwater be the answer? The United States Geological Survey defines brackish groundwater as water that “has a greater dissolved-solids content than occurs in freshwater, but not as much as seawater (35,000 milligrams per liter*).” In some areas, this may be highly preferable to fresh water withdrawals.  However, in high stress water regions, these brackish water reserves are now more likely to be used for drinking water after treatment. The National Research Council predicts these brackish sources could supplement or replace uses of freshwater.  Also, remember the interconnectedness of ground to surface water, this is also true in some regions for aquifers. Therefore, pumping a brackish aquifer can put freshwater aquifers at risk in some geologies.

Contaminated coal mine water – maybe that’s the ticket?  Why not treat and use water from coal mines?  A study out of Duke University demonstrated in a lab setting that coal mine water may be useful in removing salts like barium and radioactive radium from wastewater produced by hydraulic fracturing. However, there are still a couple of impediments to its use.  Mine water quality and constituents vary and may be too contaminated and acidic, rendering it still too expensive to treat for fracturing needs. Also, liability issues may bring financial risks to anyone handling the mine water.  In Pennsylvania, it’s called the “perpetual treatment liability” and it’s been imposed multiple times by DEP under the Clean Streams Law. Drillers worry that this law sets them up somewhere down the road, so that courts could hold them liable for cleaning up a particular stream contaminated by acid mine water that they did not pollute.

More to come on hydraulic fracturing and water scarcity

Although this article touches upon some of the issues presented by unconventional drilling’s demands on water sources, most water impacts are understood and experienced most intensely on the local and regional level.   The next installments will look at water use and loss in specific states, regions and watersheds and shine a light on areas already experiencing significant water demands from hydraulic fracturing.  In addition, we will look at some of the recommendations and solutions focused on protecting our precious water resources.

Class II Oil and Gas Wastewater Injection and Seismic Hazards in CA

By Kyle Ferrar, CA Program Coordinator, FracTracker Alliance Shake Ground Cover

In collaboration with the environmental advocacy groups Earthworks, Center for Biological Diversity, and Clean Water Action, The FracTracker Alliance has completed a proximity analysis of the locations of California’s Class II oil and gas wastewater injection wells to “recently” active fault zones in California. The results of the analysis can be found in the On Shaky Ground report, available for download at

Production of oil and natural gas results in a large and growing waste stream. Using current projections for oil development, the report projects a potential 9 trillion gallons of wastewater over the lifetime of the Monterey shale. In California the majority of wastewater is injected deep underground for disposal in wells deemed Class II wastewater injection.  The connection between seismic activity and underground injections of fluid has been well established, but with the current surge of shale resource development the occurrence of earthquakes in typically seismically inactive regions has increased, including a recent event in Ohio covered by the LA Times.   While both hydraulic fracturing and wastewater injection wells have been linked to the induction of seismic activity, the impacts of underground injection wells used for disposal are better documented and linked to larger magnitude earthquakes.

Therefore, while hydraulic fracturing of oil and gas wells has also been documented to induce seismic activity, the focus of this report is underground injection of waste fluids.

Active CA Faults

A spatial overview of the wastewater injection activity in California and recently active faults can be viewed in Figure 1, below.

Figure 1. California’s Faults and Wastewater Injection Wells. With this and all maps on this page, click on the arrows in the upper right hand corner of the map to view it fullscreen and to see the legend and more details.

The focus of the On Shaky Ground report outlines the relationship between does a thorough job reviewing the literature that shows how the underground injection of fluids induces seismic activity.  The proximity analysis of wastewater injection wells, conducted by The FracTracker Alliance, provides insight into the spatial distribution of the injection wells.  In addition, the report M7.8 earthquake along the San Andreas fault could cause 1,800 fatalities and nearly $213 billion in economic damages.2  To complement the report and provide further information on the potential impacts of earthquakes in California, FracTracker created the maps in Figure 2 and Figure 3.

Shaking Assessments

Figure 2 presents shaking amplification and shaking hazards assessments. The dataset is generated from seismic evaluations.  When there is an earthquake, the ground will amplify the seismic activity in certain ways.  The amount of amplification is typically dependent on distance to the earthquake event and the material that comprises the Earth’s crust.  Softer materials, such as areas of San Francisco built on landfills, will typically shake more than areas comprised of bedrock at the surface.  The type of shaking, whether it is low frequency or high frequency will also present varying hazards for different types of structures.  Low frequency shaking is more hazardous to larger buildings and infrastructure, whereas high frequency events can be more damaging to smaller structure such as single family houses.  Various assessments have been conducted throughout the state, the majority by the California Geological Survey and the United States Geological Survey.

Figure 2. California Earthquake Shaking Amplification and Class II Injection Wells

Landslide Hazards

Below, Figure 3. Southern California Landslide and Hazard Zones expands upon the map included in the On Shaky Ground report; during an earthquake liquefaction of soil and landslides represent some of the greatest hazards.  Liquefaction refers to the solid earth becoming “liquid-like”, whereas water-saturated, unconsolidated sediments are transformed into a substance that acts like a liquid, often in an earthquake. By undermining the foundations of infrastructure and buildings, liquefaction can cause serious damage. The highest hazard areas shown by the liquefaction hazard maps are concentrated in regions of man-made landfill, especially fill that was placed many decades ago in areas that were once submerged bay floor. Such areas along the Bay margins are found in San Francisco, Oakland and Alameda Island, as well as other places around San Francisco Bay. Other potentially hazardous areas include those along some of the larger streams, which produce the loose young soils that are particularly susceptible to liquefaction.  Liquefaction risks have been estimated by USGS and CGS specifically for the East Bay, multiple fault-slip scenarios for Santa Clara and for all the Bay Area in separate assessments.  There are not regional liquefaction risk estimate maps available outside of the bay area, although the CGS has identified regions of liquefaction and landslide hazards zones for the metropolitan areas surrounding the Bay Area and Los Angeles.  These maps outline the areas where liquefaction and landslides have occurred in the past and can be expected given a standard set of conservative assumptions, therefore there exist certain zoning codes and building requirements for infrastructure.

Figure 3. California Liquefaction/Landslide Hazards and Class II Injection Wells

Press Contacts

For more information about this report, please reach out to one of the following media contacts:

Alan Septoff
(202) 887-1872 x105
Patrick Sullivan
Center for Biological Diversity
(415) 632-5316
Andrew Grinberg
Clean Water Action
(415) 369-9172


  1. Arbelaez, J., Wolf, S., Grinberg, A. 2014. On Shaky Ground. Earthworks, Center for Biological Diversity, Clean Water Action. Available at
  2. Jones, L.M. et al. 2008. The Shakeout Scenario. USGS Open File Report 2008-1150. U.S. Department of the Interior, U.S. Geological Survey.


Portage County, OH Mountaineer Keystone Proposal

Ohio has seen its share of unconventional natural gas extraction in recent years. Now, the state is facing an influx of pipeline infrastructure to manage and distribute the extracted gas. In Portage County, OH, Mountaineer Keystone is of particular interest. FracTracker Alliance and Concerned Citizens Ohio have worked together to better understand the nature and extent of this activity.

Proposal Details

By Gwen Fischer and Trish Harness, Concerned Citizens Ohio, Portage County; Map by Ted Auch

Mt. Keystone will not invest in pipeline easements unless they believe their Return On Investment (ROI) will be great, so we expect them to drill intensively in the areas with many parcels leased and to link those parcels with pipelines wherever they have easements. They may also be seeking new pipeline easements.

Leases and easements are legal documents, and the details (how deep, placement, etc.) are critical to understanding what the industry is allowed to do on the land. Drilling companies don’t always go door to door to get a new lease. Door-to-door “landsmen” need only approach previously unleased properties. If the old lease was open-ended, a drilling company may be able to obtain a permit to drill a deeper well without negotiating new terms. If the lease was restrictive, the drilling company may need to negotiate to put a deep shale well pad or other “surface disturbance” changes not specified earlier. Without examining each lease individually, the map below cannot tell us what exactly is permitted, or where on the property. In addition, landowners should know that (depending on the terms of the lease) leases can be purchased without the owner’s knowledge. Thus, the owner may think they know the drilling company or the oil/gas production company they are dealing with, when in fact the ownership of the drilling or production well has changed.

Another item that the public should be aware of is that obtaining leases for mineral rights does not automatically grant rights for pipeline easements, but the leases could be written so as to allow for both drilling and pipelines.

The easements with Mt. Keystone are for water and waste flowback – but (given some pipeline easements we’ve seen with other companies) it is possible the pipelines could (will) be “re-purposed” for production from shale wells on the leased lands, once the wells are drilled. Even more open-ended options are possible.

About the Map

This map shows land parcels with publicly recorded mineral rights leases (for drilling) and Right of Way (ROW) easements for pipelines registered under Mountaineer Keystone’s name. No other company that might hold easements or leases is included. The map was created using public records, available on the Portage County Recorder’s and the Portage County Auditor’s websites. We utilized the raw and updated Portage County parcel shapefile and identified parcels using dummy variables with -1 identifying Mt. Keystone’s leases (825 parcels, 6,455 total acres, average 8 acres), 1 representing Mt. Keystone Right of Ways (ROWs) for pipelines (132 parcels, 2,837 total acres, average 22 acres), and 0 representing neither. Additionally, 14 of these parcels fall under those that have leases and ROWs (353 acres, average 25 acres)**.

Click on the arrows in the upper right hand corner of the map for the legend and to view the map fullscreen.

Well information comes from ODNR (Ohio Department of Natural Resources) data on their website . All of Portage county was checked for leases or easements, and this represents all of the townships and about half of the actual leases.
New mineral rights leases are parcels where a high volume, horizontal shale (HVHS) production well may be drilled, or the horizontal “laterals”may be drilled under the land. The three existing HVHS wells and their laterals are shown. ROW easements are for pipelines. A few parcels have both easements and leased mineral rights. Since permits for future wells have not yet been applied for, we cannot know exactly where on any parcel a well pad or the laterals will be drilled. Properties with leases for wells already drilled are included. Without examining individual easements, we cannot know exactly where on a parcel pipelines will be laid.

** Recently we added 103 parcels from Geauga County parcels that Mountaineer Keystone purchased from Excalibur Oil within the proposed ROW. These parcels total 1,843 acres with a range of 0.45 to 117 acres and a mean of 18 acres to date.

Researchers “drilling for data” present findings at Shale Gas Symposium

By Lisa Mikolajek Barton, Center for Environmental Research & Education, Duquesne University

Duquesne University Facing the Challenges conference attendees 2013

Facing the Challenges 2013

Two dozen researchers in a variety of disciplines presented their findings at “Facing the Challenges,” a symposium on unconventional shale gas extraction that drew more than 300 attendees to Duquesne University on Nov. 25 and 26, 2013.

The Power Center Ballroom was filled with speakers from several regional institutions as well as Cornell, Duke and Yale Universities; representatives from industry, government and non-profit agencies; and private citizens.  The event was free and open to the public.

The conference was chaired by Dr. John F. Stolz, director of the Center for Environmental Research and Education and professor of biology, and coordinated by Samantha Malone, manager of science and communications for FracTracker Alliance.  They convened the conference at the request of the Heinz Endowments, which sponsored the event along with the Colcom, Claneil and George Gund Foundations.

“It is really important that this research is funded by foundations,” Stolz remarked, “because we are able to get data unencumbered by confidentiality or conflict of interest.”

Dean Reeder giving the introductory remarks for the Duquesne University Facing the Challenges conference 2013

Dean Reeder giving the introductory remarks

Most of the data presented over the two-day event suggest that the impacts of unconventional shale gas drilling extend far beyond the well pad.  In addition to the more obvious environmental concerns such as deforestation, loss of biodiversity, waste disposal and negative health effects, there are also complex economic and social implications.

Researchers in the social sciences pointed to evidence that an economic boom and impending bust are the likely result of this rapidly expanding industry, leading to increased crime and other social problems.  While non-residential owners of large acreage and the drilling companies may reap the economic rewards, residential owners of small parcels, renters and local businesses related to tourism and agriculture tend to be the “losers” in an uneven exchange of risks and benefits.

The experiences of local people and the effects on local land were on visual display throughout the conference with photographs from the Marcellus Shale Documentary Project, and independent filmmaker Kirsi Jansa presented excerpts from Gas Rush Stories.

Duquesne University Facing the Challenges conference attendees 2013

Over 300 in attendance

Overall, a recurring issue raised by many of the researchers was that the rapid rate of expansion in unconventional shale gas drilling has outstripped our ability to manage the growth responsibly.  The pace of research and regulation lags far behind the race to produce profits for shareholders.  Although we are just beginning to observe the effects of the recent “gas rush” in Pennsylvania, lower natural gas prices are already driving drillers to other states, where more lucrative oil can be found.

Nevertheless, the researchers who presented at Duquesne University will continue to fill the gaps in our knowledge to inform leaders, lawmakers and the general public.  As Stolz noted, “A major goal of the Center for Environmental Research and Education is to understand the complexities of environmental issues and to bring those insights to the community at large.”

The manuscripts and reviews generated by many of the conference speakers will be published in a peer-reviewed journal, and a video recording of the event will soon be available.  For updates, visit the conference website:

Reprinted from Duquesne University’s Spectrum newsletter.

WV Field Visits 2013

FrackFinders Wanted

Unconventional drilling waste impoundment

A partner in data-crunching, SkyTruth, is seeking volunteers to find waste impoundments from unconventional oil and gas drilling in Pennsylvania.

SkyTruth is our “eye in the sky” when it comes to tracking everything from the plume of the BP Oil Spill to flaring in the Bakken. They use remote sensing and mapping technologies to better understand the extent and impacts from a wide spectrum of industrial activities.

With the rapid increase in unconventional drilling in PA since 2005, this endeavor is incredibly important; waste impoundments may release chemicals into the air that are dangerous to health. To assess the true impacts, however, we need to know how close people are living to these potential air pollution sources.

As anyone who has seen a drilling site knows, hydraulic fracturing (e.g. fracking) requires a lot of water and often produces a lot of waste. This means that to map where all of the waste impoundments are located in PA will require many volunteers. The beauty of crowdsourcing is that a group can contribute a significantly larger number of observations much more quickly than could ever be possible with a few non-profit staffers.

“What can I do?” SkyTruth needs your well-trained eyes for their new project called FrackFinder PA: Project Moor Frog. In the comfort of your home, they’ll ask you to identify ponds that are large enough to be a part of oil and gas extraction activities from satellite photos taken above the sites.  Learn more  | Get involved  |  Data results

Ethane Cracker Discussion in Regional Air Pollution Report

Pittsburgh Regional Environmental Threats Analysis (PRETA) Air: Hazardous Air Pollutants

Although now we are an independent non-profit, actually started as a project of CHEC at the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health. At that time, Matt, Kyle, and I worked with researchers such as Drew Michanowicz and Jim Fabisiak of Pitt, as well as Jill Kriesky now of the Southwest PA Environmental Health Project, on a data mapping and analysis project called PRETA. The Pittsburgh Regional Environmental Threats Analysis (PRETA) is intended to inform stakeholders about Southwest Pennsylvania’s major environmental health risks and provide ways to manage them. CHEC worked with key decision makers and other academics to identify, prioritize, and assess these risks. The top three risks identified were ozone, particulate matter (PM), and hazardous air pollutants (HAPs). Due to the extensive time that research like this takes, the final report about hazardous air pollutants was just recently released.

Relevant to our oil and gas readers, the HAPs report included a piece about the proposed ethane cracker slated to be built in Beaver County, PA. Below is an excerpt of PRETA HAPs that discusses how the air quality in our region may change as a result of the removal of the present zinc smelter on that site, in place of the new cracker facility.


Read Full Report (PDF)

Excerpt: The Proposed Monaca, PA Ethane Cracker

Future Trends: New Sources of HAPs in Western Pennsylvania?

All of the previous risk analyses and data discussed [earlier in the report] were drawn using historical data collected in previous years. There is considerable delay around emissions inventory collection, air monitoring data collection, atmospheric modeling, and the calculated risk estimates’ being made public. Hence, these analyses speak best toward past and present trends. They often are less useful in predicting future risks, especially when sources and technologies are constantly changing. For example, better pollution mitigation and retrofitting processes should curtail future emissions from present levels. In addition, changing the profile of various industries within a region also will alter atmospheric chemistry and subsequent risks in future scenarios.

In recent years, there has been an unprecedented expansion of unconventional natural gas development (UNGD) in Western Pennsylvania, Ohio, and West Virginia driven in part by the recent feasibility of hydraulic fracturing, which is part of a drilling procedure that allows for the tapping of the vast methane deposits contained in the Marcellus and Utica shales beneath Pennsylvania and surrounding states. Primarily, drillers are seeking to extract methane (CH4), the primary component of natural gas. However, a portion of the natural gas present in our area is considered “wet gas,” which includes heavier hydrocarbons like ethane, propane, and butane that are typically dissolved in a liquid phase or condensate. These compounds are separated from the methane to be marketed as such products as liquid propane or used as feedstock in numerous other chemical processes. Therefore, a high demand remains for wet gas deposits regardless of fluctuating natural gas (methane) market prices. Thus, a large-scale expansion in other industries (e.g., chemical manufacturing) is anticipated to follow UNGD; new industrial facilities are needed to support the refining of wet gas condensates. For example, an ethane cracker converts or “cracks” ethane, a by-product of natural gas, into ethylene so that it can be used in the production of plastics.

Located in Monaca, Pa. (Beaver County), about 12 miles east of the West Virginia border, is an aging zinc smelter owned by the Horsehead Corporation. The present Horsehead facility is currently the largest zinc refining site in the United States, producing metallic zinc and zinc oxide from recycled material and steelmaking waste. The plant opened in the 1920s to take advantage of the by-products of steel manufacturing and has expanded and modernized over time. It employed about 600 workers until recently, when the company announced its relocation to a new state-of-the-art facility in North Carolina in the near future. The scope of this metal-refining operation was such that it was a significant source of metals and criteria air pollutants.

Recently, Shell Chemical, U.S. subsidiary of Royal Dutch Shell PLC, announced plans to build an ethane cracker in the northeast to take advantage of UNGD. Lured by substantial tax benefits and other economic incentives, Shell chose the former zinc smelting site in Monaca as its proposed new location for such a facility and, in March 2012, received the approval from Pennsylvania officials to build this petrochemical complex. The cracker, according to industry representatives, will be a multibillion-dollar structure and provide thousands of jobs for Pennsylvanians 43, 44. However, many of these jobs depend on the influx of concurrent industries and technologies, which are projected to follow in the wake of sufficient petrochemical refining facilities like the ethane cracker. Thus, it is not likely to be the sole source of pollutants in the area once constructed. Though plant construction remains years away, regional air pollutant composition and chemistry are poised to change as well. Adding to the issue is the fact that the zinc smelter, ranked as one of the worst air polluters in the country in 2002 45, will be decommissioned and have its operations moved to North Carolina.

Here, we will attempt to compare the pollutant profiles of the old and new air pollution sources in order to deduce potential air pollutant changes to existing air quality in the region. Previous emission inventories are available for the Horsehead zinc smelter (EPA Toxic Release Inventory for 2008) 46. Although the proposed cracker facility’s engineering specifics are not available yet, using the records of a similar existing wet gas processing plant, we can approximate the proposed cracker’s yearly emissions. In this case, we have chosen the similarly sized Williams Olefins Cracker Facility currently operating in Geismar, La., whose emissions profiles for 2008 also were available 46. This plant, owned by Williams Partners, L.P., processes approximately 37,000 barrels of ethane and 3,000 barrels of propane per day and annually produces 1.35 billion pounds of ethylene.

Table 5 from PRETA HAPs report

In assessing the emission inventories at the two sites, we first sought to compare those pollutants that were common to both facilities. Table 5 (above) compares the annual release of criteria pollutants for which National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS) exist. These include ozone, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, particulate matter (PM10, PM2.5), lead, and carbon monoxide, for which health-based regulatory standards exist for their concentration in ambient air1. Not surprisingly, the zinc smelter released large amounts of lead into the air (five tons per year). The proposed ethane cracker, on the other hand, would release only trace amounts of lead into the air and about 0.1 percent of the sulfur dioxide, 3 percent of the carbon monoxide, and 50 percent of the nitrogen oxides of the zinc smelter. Overall, release of PM would be of a similar order of magnitude at the two sites. Thus, the representative cracker facility by itself emits less NAAQS criteria pollutants than the smelter facility.

Table 6 from PRETA HAPs report

Similarly, Table 6 (above) examines similarly reported HAPs released from both of the facilities in question. A comparison of available emissions inventories of HAPs reveals a list of common pollutants, including acrolein, benzene, ethylbenzene, xylene, and volatile organic compounds (VOCs). Note the projected increase in release of acrolein and VOCs by the proposed ethane cracker. The latter are a rather broad class of organic chemicals that have high vapor pressure (low boiling point), allowing appreciable concentrations in the air as a gaseous phase 47, 48. Examples of VOCs include formaldehyde, d-limonene, toluene, acetone, ethanol (ethyl alcohol), 2-propanol (isopropyl alcohol), and hexanal, among others. They are common components of paints, paint strippers, and other solvents; wood preservatives; aerosol sprays; cleansers and disinfectants; moth repellents and air fresheners; stored fuels and automotive products; hobby supplies; and dry-cleaned clothing. They also possess a diverse range of health effects, including, but not limited to, eye and throat irritation, nausea, headaches, nosebleeds, and skin rashes at low doses, and kidney, liver, and central nervous system damage at high doses. Some are known or suspected carcinogens. These chemicals are more often known for their role in indoor air pollution and have been linked to allergies and asthma 49. Recall that acrolein is already the primary driver of noncancer respiratory risk in the PRETA area, and releases from the proposed cracker would theoretically add to that burden.

Table 7 from PRETA HAPs Report 2013

Table 7 shows a compiled list of HAPs that were released from the Geismar plant in 2008 but not from the zinc smelter, highlighting the potential change in the pollutant mixture. For comparison, the pollutants highlighted in yellow represent those that are several orders of magnitude greater than those emitted by the Clairton Coke Works in 2008. Note the rather large emissions of formaldehyde and acetaldehyde that were discussed above as the number one and number five existing cancer drivers in the area.

Other VOCs of note include ethylene glycol, ethylene oxide, methyl-tert-butyl ether and propionaldehyde. While all these pollutants may have toxic effects on their own, one of the primary concerns, especially in outdoor air, should be their ability to form secondary pollutants. For example, we have noted previously that both acetaldehyde and formaldehyde can be formed via photo-oxidation reactions of other hydrocarbons and VOCs. Thus, the direct emissions reported in the table are likely to be significant underestimations of the true burden of acetaldehyde and formaldehyde in the area near the cracker. It also should be mentioned that a complex nonlinear sensitivity exists among VOCs, NOX, and the production rate of ozone (O3). Most urban areas are considered NOX saturated or VOC sensitive and therefore have low VOC/NOX ratios. In these environments, ozone actually decreases with increasing NOX and increases with increasing VOCs—a potentially likely situation within the urban areas of Southwestern Pennsylvania.

In conclusion, it would appear that the replacement of the existing zinc smelter with the proposed ethane cracker has the potential to significantly transform the current pollutant mixture in the region. The elimination of lead and other heavy metal emissions would be replaced by increases in formaldehyde and acetaldehyde. In addition, it does not appear that the proposed ethane cracker alone would increase any of the NAAQS criteria air pollutants, with the possible exception of ozone. On the other hand, the rather large releases of several known cancer drivers, such as formaldehyde and acetaldehyde, from the proposed cracker could increase cancer risk in the immediate proximity. In addition, the large influx of VOCs and fugitive emissions from these operations warrants further predictive analysis, especially with regard to current pollution-mitigating strategies that may not be anticipating a transforming pollutant mix.

Introduction of the ethane cracker & its effect on regional air quality in SW PA

Authors and Credits

University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health
Center for Healthy Environments and Communities
Pittsburgh, PA | August 2013


Drew Michanowicz, MPH, CPH
Kyle Ferrar, MPH
Samantha Malone, MPH, CPH
Matt Kelso, BA
Jill Kriesky, PhD
James P. Fabisiak, PhD

Technical Support

Department of Communications Services
Marygrace Reder, BA
Alison Butler, BA

Full HAPs Report (PDF) | Ozone (PDF) | Particulate Matter (PDF)
For questions related to the full report, please contact CHEC.

References Mentioned in Excerpt

43. Detrow , S. (2012). What’s an ethane cracker? StateImpact – Pennsylvania. Accessed 12-18-12:

44. Kelso, M. (2012). Jobs impact of cracker facility likely exaggerated. FracTracker Alliance. Accessed 12-18-12:

45. SCORECARD: The Pollution Information Site. (2002). Environmental Release Report: Zinc Corp. of America Monaca Smelter. Accessed 12-18-12:

46. U.S. EPA. (2008). Technology Transfer Network, Clearinghouse for Inventories and Emissions Factors The National Emissions Inventory. The National Emissions Inventory. Accessed 1-25-13:

47. U.S. EPA. (2012). An Introduction to Indoor Air Quality (IAQ). Volatile Organic Compounds. Accessed 12-18-12:

48. U.S. EPA. (2012). Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs). Accessed 12-18-12:

49. Nielsen, G.D., S.T. Larsen, O. Olsen, M. Lovik , L.K. Poulsen, C. Glue , and P. Wolkoff. (2007). Do indoor chemicals promote development of airway allergy? Indoor Air 17: pp. 236–255.

Read Full Report (PDF)

FracTracker Presenting at Duquesne Shale Gas Conference

Facing the Challenges: Research on Shale Gas Extraction Symposium

Research on Shale Gas Extraction Symposium

On November 25 and 26, 2013 the FracTracker Alliance will be taking part in a regional shale gas symposium at Duquesne University designed to share the recent research that has been conducted regarding the impacts of unconventional natural gas extraction. FracTracker’s Manager of Science and Communications, Samantha Malone, will present on the data gaps and needs that exist in this industry, especially those that hinder regulatory and corporate transparency. Full agenda >

Event Details

Facing the Challenges: Research on Shale Gas Extraction Symposium
November 25-26, 2013 — Duquesne University Power Center, Pittsburgh, PA
Agenda | Register online | Promotional poster (PDF) | Campus map
Free and open to the public!

Join us for a two-day symposium that will explore the challenges of unconventional shale gas extraction. Hear from more than two dozen academic researchers as they present their findings regarding:

  • Biological, geological and environmental investigations
  • Fugitive methane migration and climate change
  • Air and water quality
  • Human and animal health
  • Social, political and legal aspects

Sponsored by the Heinz Endowments, the Claneil Foundation, the Colcom Foundation and The George Gund Foundation. Presented by Duquesne University’s Center for Environmental Research and Education.

More information can be found on the conference website at:

Related Event

If you are planning on attending Facing the Challenges, you might also be interested in the following event being hosted by the League of Women Voters on November 23rd:

Shale Drilling and Public Health: A Day of Discovery
Presented by The League of Women Voters of Pennsylvania’s Shale and Public Health Committee
November 23, 2013  |  9 am – 5 pm
Heinz History Center, Fifth Floor Mueller Education Center, Pittsburgh, PA
This event is also free and open to the public.
More information

Negative Health Impacts & Stressors Perceived to Result from Marcellus Shale Activity

Identified by Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health

By Kyle Ferrar, MPH – DrPH Candidate, Environmental and Occupational Health Department, Graduate School of Public Health, University of Pittsburgh

The potential for negative health impacts to result from unconventional natural gas development activities, such as hydraulic fracturing (deemed “frac’ing”) occurring in the Marcellus Shale basin, is a highly debated and contentious issue.  To resolve this issue public health and medical professionals will need to conduct a large-scale epidemiological study – one that monitors the lives and health of a large sample of people for an extended period of time.  Such a study should test to see if proximity, or closeness to unconventional natural gas development, such as frac’ing, causes negative health impacts.  Such a study has not yet been officially proposed in Pennsylvania, much less funded, but researchers at the University of Pittsburgh’s Center for Healthy Environments and Communities (CHEC) believe such a study will be conducted in the future.

New peer-reviewed research released by the CHEC provides background data for that kind of study.  The research documented 59 unique health impacts, or “symptoms,” and 13 “stressors” perceived to result from Marcellus Shale development.  Over time, symptoms and perceived health impacts increased for the sample population (p<0.05), while stressors resulting from Marcellus Shale activity remained consistent (p=0.60).  The study group was a biased sample population, meaning the participants were not randomly selected.  Rather, the participants were already concerned by or interested in issues associated with this industrial activity.

Using community based participatory research methods, researchers from CHEC, along with researchers from FracTracker while it was still a project at CHEC, engaged community members with in-depth interviews.  Mail surveys have been conducted by other researchers in Colorado and Wyoming, but this is the first research to use an ethnographical, in-person approach.  Furthermore, this is the first peer-reviewed and published research that describes symptoms in those who believe their health has been affected.  The six most reported symptoms are reported in Table 1, with stress being the most commonly reported health effect.

The article contributes several new findings to this field of research, including evidence about what people report as stressors.  Contributions of stress to negative health effects are well documented in the literature, known as allostatic loads.  The six most commonly reported “stressors,” or sources of stress, are reported in Table 2.  Particularly notable is the very high percentage of the group that report issues such as being lied to that presumably would be corrected if the industry became more transparent and responsive.  The article also reports on the longitudinal nature of the perceived health impacts and stressors. Longitudinal refers to the fact that the data were collected over time, not just once. Follow-up interviews conducted 19-22 months after the initial interviews showed that the number of perceived health impacts reported by participants actually increased over time, while the number of stressors reported remained consistent.  This contradicts industry’s argument that the problems are mainly caused by seeing and hearing drilling activity, and that as the intensity of activity diminishes over time so will the symptoms and stressors. While this research does not answer the larger question of whether negative health effects are associated with Marcellus Shale development, it demonstrates a need for future studies to be conducted within these particular communities and supports the more difficult task of embarking on a broader epidemiological study.

Table 1. Most reported symptoms with the percentage of participants reporting said symptom.

Symptoms Session 1 (n=33)
Stress 76%
Rashes 27%
Loss of sleep 27%
General illness 24%
Headaches 24%
Diarrhea 24%
Shortness of breath 21%
Line Table 2. Most reported “stressors” participants associated with Marcellus Shale development, with the percentage of participants reporting said stressor.

Stressor Session 1 (n=33)
Denied or provided false information 79%
Corruption 61%
Concerns/complaints ignored 58%
Being taken advantage of 52%
Financial damages 45%
Noise pollution 45%


About the Journal Article

Assessment and longitudinal analysis of health impacts and stressors perceived to result from unconventional shale gas development in the Marcellus Shale region <-- Note: This link is presently not connecting to the article on We will update the link once the article becomes available again on their site. Authors: Kyle J. Ferrar; Jill Kriesky; Charles L. Christen; Lynne P. Marshall; Samantha L. Malone; Ravi K. Sharma; Drew R. Michanowicz; Bernard D. Goldstein Source: International Journal of Occupational and Environmental Health

Update from US EPA on Hydraulic Fracturing Study

Update from US EPA on Hydraulic Fracturing Study

Update from US EPA on Hydraulic Fracturing StudyThe U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Science Advisory Board (SAB) released Federal Register Notices announcing a public meeting and a teleconference where the Hydraulic Fracturing Research Advisory Panel will provide feedback on the Study of the Potential Impacts of Hydraulic Fracturing on Drinking Water Resources: Progress Report. The public will also have the opportunity to provide comments for the Panel’s consideration.

Information on how to view a webcast of the meeting will be posted on the SAB website prior to the meeting. More information on the Science Advisory Board’s Hydraulic Fracturing Research Advisory Panel and its activities is available here.

In addition, EPA’s Federal Register Request for Information to Inform Hydraulic Fracturing Research Related to Drinking Water Resources will be closing on Tuesday, April 30, 2013.

Update from US EPA on Hydraulic Fracturing Study

Summary of EPA Roundtables Available

From the US Environmental Protection Agency:

EPA recently posted a summary of the five technical roundtables held in November 2012 to help inform EPA’s Hydraulic Fracturing Study. Each roundtable focused on a different stage of the hydraulic fracturing water cycle:

  • Water acquisition
  • Chemical mixing
  • Well injection
  • Flowback and produced water
  • Wastewater treatment and waste disposal

Technical roundtables are an important component of EPA’s Study of the Potential Impacts of Hydraulic Fracturing on Drinking Water Resources. The roundtables allow for external subject-matter experts from a variety of stakeholder groups to discuss the work underway to answer the key research questions of the study, and to identify possible topics for technical workshops.