Trout Unlimited Testing for Water Quality in PA’s Marcellus Region

Trout Unlimited (TU) is one of several organizations that are actively monitoring water quality in Pennsylvania’s rivers and streams.  Currently, TU is collecting data in 99 different watersheds throughout the Commonwealth in an effort to help understand potential impacts of shale gas drilling and related industries on Pennsylvania’s waterways.  Mitchell Blake, TU’s Pennsylvania Marcellus Shale Field Organizer explains:

Trout Unlimited’s Coldwater Conservation Corps (CCC) is a network of volunteer stream stewards who monitor water quality throughout the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.  With over 350 members trained, hailing from almost every Pennsylvania Trout Unlimited chapter, the CCC volunteers focus on achieving early detection of pollution events during oil and gas drilling and production activities and collecting a baseline inventory of data on important coldwater fisheries.  Using a scientific tool that focuses on trout populations and forecasted Marcellus development, CCC volunteers strategically choose their monitoring locations within their chapter and report and map their data using Trout Unlimited’s water quality monitoring database.  Protection of coldwater fisheries is an integral part of Trout Unlimited’s mission and more than any other segment of society, it is fisherman who spend considerable time on these streams, and thus are well positioned to watch over them.

While the data collection is ongoing, there are several logistical concerns involved with data digitization and distribution before the water quality data can be made available to the general public, but Mr. Blake is hopeful that these issues will be resolved in the coming months.

Watersheds where water quality testing is being conducted by TU volunteers are highlighted in green. For full access to map controls, please click the expanding arrows icon at the top right corner of the map.

At the FracTracker Alliance, we are excited to see TU’s desire to share this data with the public.  It may seem like a thankless task to brave the elements to obtain baseline water quality data, but it is important work that everyone can benefit from.  And while everyone hopes never to find the proverbial “smoking gun” in terms of streams being negatively impacted by industry, data collection efforts such as these are invaluable resources in identifying potential contamination events, should they occur.

NM Shale Map Shows Contamination Events

Recently, the FracTracker Alliance has gotten several requests from residents of New Mexico for maps showing the large scale drilling operations in that state.  As we began to look around for data sources, we encountered an interesting document from 2008:

This 2008 document from the New Mexico Oil Conservation Division shows instances of ground water contamination by oil and gas pits in the state.

This 2008 document from the New Mexico Oil Conservation Division shows instances of ground water contamination by oil and gas pits in the state.

There isn’t much description on the document or the New Mexcio Oil Conservation Division (NMOCD) page that links to it, however, the subject matter is straightforward enough.  Altogether, there are 369 instances of ground water contamination documented by a New Mexico governmental agency from dozens of drilling operators throughout the Land of Enchantment.

Ground Water Contamination Controversy

Since the title of document indicates that the agents causing contamination are “pit substances”, this does not technically indicate that hydraulic fracturing is to blame.  This is largely a matter of definition, but it is an important one to understand, because the word “fracking” means something different to industry insiders than it does to the general public, and the issue of ground water contamination is a point of considerable debate.

Technically speaking,  hydraulic fracturing only refers to one stage of the well completion process, in which water, sand, and chemicals are injected into the oil or gas well, and pressurized to break up the carbon-rich rock formation to allow the desired product to flow better.Most people (and many media outlets) consider “fracking” to be the entire production process for wells that require such treatment, from the development of the several acre well pad, through the drilling, the completion, flaring, waste disposal, and integration of the product to pipelines.  (It is due to these competing definitions that the FracTracker Alliance goes out of our way to avoid the term “fracking”.)

All of this has lead to some carefully worded statements that seem to exhonerate hydraulic fracturing, despite suspected contamination events reported in Pennsylvania, Wyoming, and elsewhere.  Of course, from the perspective of residents relying on a contaminated aquifer, it hardly matters whether the water was contaminated by hydraulic fracturing, leeching from the associated pits, problems with well casing or cement, or re-pressurized abandoned wells.  A fouled aquifer is a fouled aquifer.

This document does not specify what was contained in the pits, only that they are contamination events.  Therefore, we do not know what stage of the process the contaminant came from, only that it was believed by the state of New Mexico to have originated from a pit, and not the well bore itself.

Notes About Location Information

It is important to note that the location information is not exact, but are generally within 0.72 miles of the specified location.  The reason for this is that the location information was provided using the Public Land Survey System (PLSS).  The brainchild of Thomas Jefferson, the PLSS was the method used to grid out the western frontier, and it is still used as a legal land description in many western states.  Essentially, the land was divided into townships that were six miles by six miles, which was then broken into 36 sections, each of which is one square mile.  FracTracker has calculated the centroid of each section, which could be up to 0.71 miles from the corner of the same section if the shape is perfectly square.

The PLSS system was used to grid out most of New Mexico, but some portions of the state had already been well defined by Spanish and Mexcian land grants.  Aside from being a fascinating historical anecdote, it does have an effect on the mapping of these pits.  In the image of the table above, note that the “Florance Z 40” well does not have any values in the location column.  As a result, we were not able to map this pit.  Altogether, 11 of the 369 pits identified as causing groundwater contamination could not be mapped.

New Mexico Shale Viewer. You can zoom and click on map icons in this window for more information. For full access to map controls, including layer descriptions, please click the expanding arrows icon in the top right portion of the map.

Lakes in Appalachian Ohio’s Utica Play: A Snapshot

By Ted Auch, PhD – Ohio Program Coordinator, FracTracker Alliance

Ohio’s southwest Appalachian counties – namely Carroll, Harrison, Guernsey, and Noble Counties – are home to two significant resources:

  1. the state’s Utica Shale Triple Play – defined as the extraction of “natural gas and natural gas liquids…from the Marcellus Shale…Upper Devonian Shale…and the Utica Shale about 1,000 to 2,000 feet below the Marcellus” (Range Resources CEO, John Pinkerton); and
  2. many of the state’s premier lakes, including Atwood in Carroll and Tuscarawas and Senacaville in Noble and Guernsey counties (Figure 1).

Senacaville and Atwood Lakes provide countless ecological and economic benefits (a.k.a., Ecosystem Services) at a regional, state, and local level contributing substantially to the state’s $3.6 billion wildlife tourism economy – a number that is increasing by 2% per year according to the US Fish & Wildlife Service’s Wildlife & Sport Fish Restoration Program (WSFR). Needless to say, the unconventional natural gas industry, which uses approximately 5 million gallons of fresh water per drilled well, relies heavily on Ohio’s lakes, wetlands, and to a lesser degree vernal pools – all of which are concentrated in the Utica Shale sweet spot counties on the Pennsylvania and West Virginia borders. These same counties are home to nearly all the state’s 440+ Utica Wells and more than half its 160+ injection wells (used for waste fluid disposal) (Figure 2).

Recently – for these and other environmental reasons – many in the area have grown concerned that Appalachian Ohio’s entire lake network is at risk due to current and proposed hydraulic fracturing and injection wells. In an attempt to assess these risks, we analyzed the proximity of current Utica drilled wells and Class II/III [1] wells to these two lakes specifically and to the state’s inland perennial water bodies. Atwood Lake is the lake with the most wells – either injection or fracturing – within a five-mile radius with 19 total (Figures 3 and 4). Meanwhile, M.J. Kirwan Reservoir, Guilford, and Senacaville Lakes each have 12 wells within a five-mile radius. The Cuyahoga River, Lake Mohawk, Tappan Lake, and Berlin Lake are the remaining water bodies currently within five miles of 10 or more wells. Four of these 19 wells are within two miles of Atwood and Guilford Lake’s shores. In the case of Tappan and Berlin Lakes, 3 wells sit within two miles (Figure 4). Interestingly Tappan Lake’s integrity from a water quality perspective has come under pressure thanks to the Chesapeake Energy Dodson well according to Charles Fisher, administrator of the Harrison County Health Department and organic farmer John M. Luber as “a stream…that empties into Tappan Lake becomes discolored during periods of rainfall or melting snow…the pollution did not happen until drilling operations began.”

In researching previous natural resource activities in the Utica Shale Basin, we found that in addition to the many shale and injection wells in the vicinity of these lakes, most are surrounded or sit atop abandoned, underground coal mines (AUCM). One example is Senacaville Lake, where Seneca Coal’s Klondyke, Rigby, and Walholding AUCMs are within feet of the lake’s western shore. In addition, Akron Coal, James W. Ellsworth, and Cambridge Collieries’ AUCMs just to the west of Senecaville Lake lie directly beneath two Utica and two Class III wells, bringing into question the reported discrete nature of these types of extraction procedures with respect to their proximity to primary freshwater sources. The same is true for Atwood Lake, with six AUCMs less than a mile of its eastern extent – previously owned by the Ohio Central Mining Co., Burns Coal Co., White Barr Coal Co., Marshall Harvey, etc. (Figure 5).

The possibility for the disruption of regular inputs/outputs of these lakes’ hydrological cycles – specifically from a water quality or quantity perspective – is growing. This is the case because the interconnectivity (Setbacks Press Release V 3) between Utica and injection wells is increasing and due to the fact that many AUCM exist in the very areas where hydraulic fracturing is currently being conducted or has been proposed. As a result, many community organizations and non-profit environmental groups are looking to construct and implement a comprehensive water monitoring protocol in Ohio’s Utica Basin. However, given funding limitations and the lack of data being made available from Ohio’s Department of Natural Resource (ODNR) and Ohio Environmental Protection Agency (OEPA), these groups are being forced to prioritize water bodies of concern. Our research suggests that some of the state’s largest and most economically beneficial lakes – namely Senacaville, Atwood, Guilford, Tappan, and Berlin – are at the top of the list of stressed and/or potentially susceptible inland waters.

Figure 1. Eastern Ohio Utica Shale Basin - Click to enlarge

Figure 1. Eastern Ohio Utica Shale Basin

Figure 2. Ohio’s lakes, wetlands, and vernal pools relative to its Utica Shale and Class II/III injection wells - Click to enlarge

Figure 2. Ohio lakes, wetlands, & vernal pools relative to Utica Shale & Class II/III injection wells

Figure 3. The distribution of Ohio’s Utica Shale and Class II/III Injection wells with respect the region’s primary perennial water bodies at 1, 3, and 5 mile intervals

Figure 3. The distribution of Ohio’s Utica Shale and Class II/III Injection wells with respect the region’s primary perennial water bodies at 1, 3, and 5 mile intervals


Figure 4. Senecaville & Atwood Lake Region of Ohio’s shale geology, state parks, Utica Shale and Class II/III wells (Note: Pink & Green Circles represent 1 mile radius around Utica Shale and Class III Wells). - Click to enlarge

Figure 4. Senecaville & Atwood Lake Region of Ohio’s shale geology, state parks, Utica Shale & Class II/III wells

Figure 5. Senecaville & Atwood Lake Region of Ohio’s shale geology, state parks, Utica Shale and Class II/III wells, and Abandoned Underground Coal Mines (AUCMs) - Click to enlarge

Figure 5. Senecaville & Atwood Lake Region of Ohio’s shale geology, state parks, Utica Shale & Class II/III wells, plus Abandoned Underground Coal Mines

Note: Pink & Green Circles in Figures 4 and 5 represent a 1 mile radius around Utica Shale & Class III Wells.


1. From the ODNR: “Class II disposal wells include conventional brine injection wells, annular disposal wells, and enhanced oil recovery injection wells. Enhanced recovery injection wells are used to increase production of hydrocarbons from nearby producing wells… Additionally, DMRM also regulates Class III salt-solution mining wells, which are used to produce saturated brine from the salt deposits that occur from 2000 to 3500 feet below Ohio’s ground surface. The saturated brine is then used to make table salt, water softener salt, and salt blocks. All types of injection wells are designed to ensure safe injection into permitted formations.”

Surveying Unassessed Waters in PA

According to the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission (PFBC), only 22,000 of the 86,000 miles of flowing water in PA have been sampled by biologists from their organization. As of 2011, about 12,800 miles were designated as wild trout waters. (It is hard to believe that we have so many streams to begin with!) In recent years, many groups in the Commonwealth have increased their efforts to assess these streams due to increases in potential water quality threats, such as land development and unconventional natural gas extraction. By default, unassessed streams are given the lowest classification category by the PA Department of Environmental Protection (PA DEP). It is important to prioritize streams according to their water quality, the potential for wild trout populations, and the risk posed by nearby human activities. Why trout?  Glad you asked. While there are many other ways to determine water quality, the presence of wild trout increases the streams’ water quality protection classification in PA.

A few weeks ago I spoke with an engaging gentleman from Susquehanna University, Dr. Jonathan Niles, who is working on a unique stream sampling project through the PFBC with a number of partners to do just that. Pennsylvania’s Unassessed Waters Initiative seeks to classify the 92% of streams that don’t have monitoring data about.  In 2010, PFBC partnered with two universities to survey trout populations in 30 streams each under a small grant. This work was expanded in 2011 with even more entities signing on, including Susquehanna University, and resulted in a significant increase in the number of classified streams.  The project involves entering the GPS locations of the unassessed streams and then collecting trout population data from the field. In the past two years the Unassessed Waters Initiative has surveyed 1,049 streams and documented wild trout in about 55% of those streams. Check out the progress they have made in the two maps below, the first from 2008 before sampling efforts were increased, and the second from 2012:

2008 Unassessed Waters in PA

Unassessed Waters in PA – 2008 – Unassessed streams in red, Assessed in blue

2012 Unassessed Waters

Unassessed Waters in PA – 2012 – Unassessed streams in red, Assessed in blue

In addition to the sampling protocol set forth by PFBC, Dr. Niles and his students Caleb Currens, John Panas, and Sam Silknetter collected benthic macroinvertibrate (which are PA DEP water quality indicators) and algae species data, conducted fish population estimates on every stream (not just where there was more than 5 fish of a certain species), sampled fish diets, and collected water for additional heavy metals and contaminant analysis. The preliminary fishery data from last year are currently being reviewed by the PADEP.

Some of the Initative’s efforts have focused on the quality of streams near shale gas drilling operations, especially due to the risk that erosion and sedimentation poses to trout’s habitat. Dr. Niles feels that the data collected from initiatives like this one provide valuable operating insight for development and natural gas companies, as sensitive areas can be avoided by companies – saving them time and money.

With funding from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, the Iinitiative has been funded again this year. Dr. Niles’ team is contracted to assess 20 streams in Loyalstock that were previously unassessed. An additional 40 streams will be assessed by Dr. Niles’ team elsewhere in PA. While they have made extraordinary progress, there is still much work to be done. What does a project with such a broad geographic scope like this one cost? In addition to travel and salary costs, each benthic macroinvertebrate sample runs about $200-250 to analyze in a lab. It is likely that this year alone there will be at least 60 samples collected by Dr. Niles’ team, if not more. The financial cost of conducting this kind of research may seem high, but the failure to do so could cost Pennsylvanians much more. It is our hope, here at FracTracker, to keep up-to-date with the Unassessed Waters Initiative as the teams go out this year. Check back soon for more information, or contact us if you would like to get involved with either the sampling or funding of this initiative:

Below are photos of Dr. Niles’ assessment team taken during their field sampling trips.

In addition to the Fish and Boat’s own crews, the following 15 groups are partners for this year’s Unassessed Waters Initiative:

  • Penn State University
  • California University of Pennsylvania
  • Susquehanna University
  • Clarion University
  • Lycoming College
  • Kings College
  • Keystone College
  • Juniata College
  • Allegheny College
  • Mansfield University
  • Lock Haven University
  • Duquesne University
  • Loyalsock Creek Watershed Association
  • Western Pennsylvania Conservancy
  • Trout Unlimited – Eastern Abandoned Mines program

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

Special thanks to Jon Niles (Susquehanna University) and Bob Weber (PA Fish and Boat Commission) for their contributions to this article and efforts in the field!

Map of Pavilion WY

EPA: Fracking and Groundwater Contamination

Map of Pavillion, WY

Pavillion, WY

The Internet is alive today after the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency released a report that indicates hydraulic fracturing (used when drilling for natural gas in tight shale formations) can contaminate groundwater. Residents of Pavillion, WY have been complaining about the state of their groundwater for some time now. The draft EPA report lends credibility to their claims with the finding that chemicals associated with the process were found in some deep water aquifers in the area. And when you look at all of the evidence around this issue – outside of the EPA’s study – the results are even more ‘ground-breaking.’

Having said that, there are a few questions regarding the EPA report/research. No field study could ever account for all of the potential confounders and variables – especially given the amount of resources the EPA had at its disposal to conduct this work. However, some of the most significant questions that I would like to see answered before this draft is finalized include:

  1. How representative is the data from the two monitoring wells in relation to residents’  drinking water wells?
  2. Has the potential for surface contamination of the monitoring wells been ruled out?
  3. Why weren’t the duplicate samples that were analyzed by separate labs also able to detect 2-BE?

These questions (and surely more) are exactly why this is only a draft report. According to the EPA, it will be available for a 45-day public comment period. A subsequent 30-day peer-review process will be led by a panel of independent scientists to ensure that the results that stay on the records are accurate.

Flood Control and Shale Gas Wells

Flooding from Hurricane Irene in Wilkes-Barre PA

Photo Credit: Salvation Army, Randall Thomas, Wilkes-Barre, PA

Pennsylvania is no stranger to water and flooding, as we receive between 38 and 45 inches of rain per year on average. Unfortunately, the storms that hit the region starting on August 27th were more than we could handle – to say the least. During this time Hurricane Irene and the remnants of Tropical Storm Lee burdened the eastern portion of the state with flooding at water levels that rivaled Hurricane Agnes (1972).

While most residents hit hardest by flooding focused on protecting their families, homes, and livelihoods, others throughout the Commonwealth were also concerned about the impact that rising water levels could have on natural gas well pads. This is especially an issue for those sites operating in floodplains with open frac ponds. According to the reports we have been able to gather no shale gas well sites were compromised or sustained environmental damage in PA.  Apparently, Marcellus Shale drillers were advised to prevent overflows from wastewater/’frac’ ponds by the governor, although due to a communication loophole it is unclear as to whether all of the relevant sites temporarily shut down during the inclement weather. Regardless, with the number of wells being drilled in PA especially in the northeast, being able to prevent any incidents during these storms is quite a feat on the part of the drillers and should be recognized as such. Industry reports also indicate that drilling companies provided financial contributions, expertise, equipment, work hours, and supplies to aid in the flood relief efforts. Learn more about these contributions here.

We ask that if you have any knowledge that contradicts this information, please let us know and contact your local representative to report the incident.

Groundwater Contamination Debate

The Debate
: Can the process of hydraulically fracturing underground natural gas wells contaminate groundwater?

Industry Position:  There has never been a documented case of groundwater contamination due to hydraulic fracturing; the process occurs thousands of feet below drinking water aquifers. Therefore, the chemicals used in the fracturing process pose no threat to drinking water.

Opposition Position:  It can and has contributed to pollution of underground drinking water sources.

The Data:  Previous lawsuits from landowners were settled by the industry and the data kept private for various litigation reasons. A U.S. EPA report now indicates that hydraulic fracturing has been linked to at least one case of drinking water contamination in West Virginia in 1987 and could feasibly contribute to future problems.

Future Obligations:  Some improved regulations and protections have been put in place since 1987, but the risk still exists if natural gas drilling is done hastily or if abandoned wells exist nearby. Once pollutants are introduced into underground water aquifers they are very difficult to remove, so significant care and review must be taken if drilling is going to continue. The EPA report further supports the need for increased government and industry transparency across the board. It should also be stated that a large-scale health impact assessment is needed to comprehensively determine the risk that the entire natural gas drilling operation poses to public health.

Compiled by: Samantha Malone, MPH, CPH – Communications Specialist, Center for Healthy Environments and Communities (CHEC), Environmental and Occupational Health (EOH) department, University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health (GSPH); and Doctoral Student, GSPH

SRBC Water Withdrawal Permits and Water Quality Monitoring

March 2011 SRBC Water Withdrawals (small)
Susquehanna River Basin Commission water withdrawal permits issued on March 10, 2011. Please click the image for a larger, more dynamic view.

Water Withdrawals

On March 24th, the Susquehanna River Basin Commission released notes about the public portion of their quarterly Commission meeting, which included a variety of water withdrawal permits. Specific locations were not included in the report, so the geographic information available on our DataTool is approximate.

March 2011 SRBC Water Withdrawals by Source Type. Please click the information tool (“i” button) then a map feature for more information. Please click on the gray compass rose and double carat (^) to hide those menus.

Water permits issued by the Susquehanna River Basin Commission at their March 2011 quarterly meeting by water source type, in millions of gallons per day.

March 2011 SRBC Water Withdrawals by Industry Type. Please click the information tool (“i” button) then a map feature for more information. Please click on the gray compass rose and double carat (^) to hide those menus.

Water permits issued by the Susquehanna River Basin Commission at their March 2011 quarterly meeting by applicant’s industry type, in millions of gallons per day.

The financial sector in the chart above is represented by Peoples Financial Services. Their own company website is almost completely useless, but the New York Times explains that they are a commercial and retail bank, primarily active in Susquehanna and Wyoming counties. There is no reason to think that a regional bank would go through a million gallons of water a day, so their permit request seems likely to be on behalf of one of their clients.

The total permitted amount approved on March 10, 2011 is 15.695 million gallons per day. According to the American Water Works Association, the average daily per capita residential water usage is 69.3 gallons, meaning that the water permits approved in the Susquehanna River Basin this month is the equivalent to the water usage of 226,479 people.

Remote Water Quality Monitoring Network

While we are discussing the Susquehanna River Basin Commission, they have an interesting tool called the Remote Water Quality Monitoring Network, which is a collection of solar powered water monitoring stations, and provides real time data for pH, conductance, dissolved oxygen, and turbidity. In browsing this for a moment or two, the pH level for Canacadea Creek near Almond, NY stuck out. It’s value of 3.87 is acidic enough to kill most fish and macroinvertebrates. The tool also has historic data, which shows that a month and a half ago, the pH from the same location was up at 8.79 pH units.

While I certainly hope that the SRBC and other authorities in New York figure out what’s going on in Canacadea Creek, I applaud the transparency that the Remote Water Quality Monitoring Network brings to the table. In the 21st Century, residents should have access to tools of this nature to alert them to real-time environmental challenges in their own communities.

Natural Gas Drilling, Clean Water, and Mr. Pittsburgh

By Matthew S. Freiberg, MD, MSc, Assistant Professor of Medicine and Epidemiology, University of Pittsburgh

First and foremost, the issue at stake here is Pittsburgh’s need to have clean water for overall public health as well as for economic viability now and in the future. It should go without saying that if Pittsburgh is labeled a city with contaminated or polluted water, Pittsburgh will have an impossible time recruiting new businesses to the area, maintaining the businesses it does have, and it will be saddled with the economic burden of clean up plus health care costs.

Therefore, it is essential that Pittsburgh acts to ensure that its water sources remain clean.Pittsburgh should be vigilant about its water supply because recent events suggest industry has not always been correct.

Not so long ago, the American public was told by the Tobacco Industry that “nicotine is not addictive” and “smoking does not cause lung cancer.” We, of course, now know this is not true, but the damage has been and continues to be done every day all over the world. As a physician in Pittsburgh, I can tell you first hand that our community continues to pay a huge price for these huge mistakes.

More recently, the American public was told that the banking industry did not require intense regulation or oversight because “the market” would correct any problems. Is there is any one in America right now who believes that the banking industry should oversee itself?We are now told that our drinking water is “safe” based on recent testing in our local rivers, and our newly elected officials are suggesting that additional regulations for the Natural gas industry are not necessary.

My response to these comments is that history often repeats itself, but it does not have to.So, how should Pittsburgh approach this problem?

Consider the following story about a patient named Mr. Pittsburgh

Mr. Pittsburgh presents to the hospital with chest pain. Mr. Pittsburgh smokes, has high blood pressure, and high cholesterol. Mr. Pittsburgh and his family are concerned he is having a heart attack. The doctor agrees and decides to check his blood for evidence of damage to his heart. After an hour of waiting, the doctor returns with good news: Mr. Pittsburgh has not had a heart attack. However, the doctor does tell Mr. Pittsburgh that checking his blood is not the way to prevent a heart attack. Checking his blood only tells him if he has had a heart attack. The way to prevent the heart attack is to quit smoking and to lower his blood pressure and cholesterol. The doctor also explains to Mr. Pittsburgh that if he continues to smoke and have high blood pressure and high cholesterol that he will likely have a heart attack. This heart attack may kill him. If Mr. Pittsburgh survives his heart attack, he may still have a permanently damaged heart. At the very least, the doctor says that Mr. Pittsburgh will require medication that can be very expensive for the rest of his life.

The case of Mr. Pittsburgh is exactly what we are facing with drilling for natural gas and protecting our drinking water. While I applaud the initiative to check the water, the answer to protecting our drinking water for the good of our public health and economic viability lies in prevention. The keys to prevention are ensuring that the processes by which natural gas is extracted, the chemicals used in the process of FRACKING, and the disposal of waste water associated with FRACKING are safe.

How does Mr. Pittsburgh ensure safety?

Well, let’s take a look at the some of the regulations that are required for a new medicine to be used on patients.

When physicians conduct clinical trials involving patients to determine if a new medicine is safe and effective for people, the physicians and scientists conducting the trial are NEVER allowed to be in charge of overseeing the safety issues involving their own trial. There is a completely separate group of physicians and scientists who serve on a Data Safety Monitoring Board (DSMB). The DSMB’s job and responsibility is to ensure the safety of the patients in the study and the DSMB has the authority to stop any trial that is a danger to the patients in the trial. This is a good system because it reduces the possibility that a conflict of interest will occur between the physicians and the outcome of the trial. Allowing physicians to run studies while also determining whether the study is safe for the participants is a clear conflict of interest and it compromises the integrity of the science.

So if medicine requires this level of oversight to protect patient safety, why should the natural gas industry not be subject to the same strict oversight? Ensuring clean drinking water is just as vital to a person’s health as is ensuring that the medication a patient takes is safe. Given what is at stake, public health and sustained economic viability of Mr. Pittsburgh’s city, Mr. Pittsburgh should demand the same level of independent oversight of the natural gas industry as is currently practiced and strictly enfored for clinical trials involving new medications.

Why should we consider re-evaluating the FRACKING Mechanism or any part of the drilling process for that matter?

In medicine, we are always reviewing, re-evaluating, and reconsidering patient treatment guidelines. The reason we do this is because new science is always happening and sometimes new science suggests a better way to care for people or that our current way of caring for patients may not be as safe as we once thought. In the case of FRACKING, recent documents provided by the New York Times suggest that this process poses more than a reasonable risk to our drinking water supply. Like science, laws, policies, and regulations need to be constantly revisited and changed when appropriate. In Mr. Pittsburgh’s case, it is no longer clear, based on the new science that our current laws, regulations, and policies are adequately providing the necessary protections to ensure clean and safe drinking water.

Final Thoughts

Pittsburgh and SW Pennsylvania are sitting on one of the largest sources of natural gas anywhere. Companies are going to want to drill here, and they will make large amounts of money doing so. While there may be benefits for Pittsburgh and SW Pennsylvania in terms of jobs and revenue, there are clearly risks associated with this drilling. There is very little doubt the current situation is a “win” for industry. What we (Mr. Pittsburgh’s community) need is to be sure of that there is a win for us, our children, grand children and future generations long after the natural gas is gone and the natural gas companies have left. It is precisely the “win” for us that I am concerned about and I believe is not being adequately addressed.How might we “win” in this situation?

We can only “win” if the water supply remains undamaged. We will surely lose our health and our economic viability if our water is polluted. We will not be the only “loser” either. Our families, children, and future generations will also “lose” if we don’t “win.”

To help us “win,” we should demand of our U.S. Senators, U.S. Representatives. Director of the EPA, Governor, Legislature, local officials, and the industry itself the following:A true preventive strategy: continue regular random checks of drinking water sources—both rivers and well water for those closest to the drilling PLUS regular random checks of the drilling wells, waste water, and waste water disposal processes—checking water only tells us that a “heart attack” has happened. What we need is to prevent “the heart attack.”

Stricter oversight of the natural gas industry by a “Data Safety Monitoring Board”, preferably not affiliated with the state of Pennsylvania in order to minimize any conflict of interest: Clean water is just as important as safe medicine and it requires the same level of oversight as a new medicine in order to protect us, our family, friends and neighbors from having “a heart attack.”

An efficient and expedited review of the FRACKING materials and procedures and processes for monitoring waste water and waste water disposal. New information requires new evaluations. Our health and the area’s economic viability for the future requires that all procedures associated with natural gas drilling be safe and present no threat to the drinking water supply. The determination of whether FRACKING and other procedures are safe should again be conducted by a Data Safety Monitoring Board.

Because no one can possibly tell everyone who needs to know about this issue, we should ask for the following help:

  • The local newspapers, radio stations, and television stations should continue to follow this topic understanding that this process of drilling will last years.
  • The Carnegie museums should have an exhibit on the Marcellus Shale. This exhibit should clearly state the potential benefits and clear risks affecting the region of SW PA and Pittsburgh by drilling for natural gas.
  • Universities, colleges, and school districts in SW PA should educate students about the Marcellus Shale and how this natural gas drilling will affect their everyday lives. This information will be essential as they decide how to deal with this process including who to vote for and on what policies to vote for so that our drinking water and economic viability remain secure.

In my opinion, the current conditions are NOT a “win win” situation for us. Without a true preventive strategy, stricter oversight, a serious review of the FRACKING procedure, waste water, and waste water disposal, and sustained community involvement, I think we are all in danger of losing our clean drinking water and with it our health and the economically viability of our community for now and for future generations. We all understand that the decisions of today will impact several future generations, and the impact of these decisions will be present long after the natural gas and the natural gas industry are gone.

Matthew S. Freiberg, MD, MSc
Assistant Professor of Medicine and Epidemiology
Division of General Internal Medicine and Center for Research on Health Care
University of Pittsburgh
230 McKee Place, Suite 623
Pittsburgh, PA 15213
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Ohio River Barium Concentration Trending Upward

The Ohio River Valley Water Sanitation Commission (ORSANCO) has been testing the main stem of the Ohio River for the presence of a variety of metals for some time, with results since 1998 published at their website. Mappable versions (1) of this data from 2010 are now posted on FracTracker’s DataTool as well. Over the years, the scope of the ORSANCO sampling efforts has broadened, both in the number of sampling locations as well as sampling frequency. In recent years, there are seventeen (2) locations, from which samples are obtained every odd numbered month. Currently, the most recent data available is July 2010.
Given the rapid surge in Marcellus Shale oil and gas drilling activity within the ORSANCO drainage basin and the millions of gallons of wastewater that ultimately finds its way into the Ohio River by way of numerous treatment plants and road deicing, I wanted to see if the impact of this industrial activity was reflected in the data.

[map archived]

I decided to take a look at barium concentrations. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, background levels of barium are not especially high in this region (3), noting:

…[Barium] occurs naturally in almost all (99.4%) surface waters examined, in concentration of 2 to 340 ug/l, with an average of 43 ug/l. The drainage basins with low mean concentration of barium (15 ug/l) occur in the western Great Lakes, and the highest mean concentration of 90 ug/l is in the southwestern drainage basins of the lower Mississippi Valley. In stream water and most groundwater, only traces of the element are present.

Barium is also a signature constituent of sorts of Marcellus Shale wastewater. According to this industry report, barium values range from 2,000 to 6,500 milligrams per liter in the wastewater.

[map archived]

This gives us an idea of how concentrations vary in space, at least on this occasion. Note that each of the first four testing locations downstream from the confluence of the Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers in Pittsburgh are among the highest group, with barium values in the 56.7 to 70.8 micrograms per liter (µg/L)range. These values are at once notably above the average background level and well below the EPA drinking water standard for barium of 2 milligrams per liter (4).

But what about changes over time? Marcellus Shale drilling activity has been increasing exponentially since the first well was drilled in 2006. Could this activity have any long term effects? To investigate this point, I compiled the barium amounts since 2006, and selected the three testing locations closest to Pennsylvania: New Cumberland Locks and Dam, Pike Island Locks and Dam, and Hannibal Locks and Dam.

ORCANCO barium values at New Cumberland, Pike Island, and Hannibal testing locations. Please click here for a larger view.

Right off the bat, we can see that there are significant seasonal variances, with peaks in late summer, and troughs in the late spring. That appears to be inversely proportional to the average flow rate of the Ohio River.

Average annual flow rate of the Ohio River at Wheeling, WV. Units are in Thousands of cubic feet per second (KCBS), and represent values between 9-1-98 and 2-29-08. Detailed flow data is available here.

Since barium values are clearly lower when there is more water in the river, it seems likely that such fluctuations would be due to dilution of pollution rather than natural circumstances.

Seasonal differences aside, the dashed trendlines of barium concentration show another story. Barium values are going up at all three locations. Significantly.

Approximate start and end values for the trendlines representing barium content in micrograms per liter at three testing locations on the Ohio River.

So while the recorded values themselves in the main stem of the northeastern portion of the Ohio River are not alarming, the fact that they are increasing so rapidly is a concern. It is worth bearing in mind that the values in some tributaries might be much higher, and that barium is only one of many pollutants associated with Marcellus Shale wastewater disposal.

Of course, none of this amounts to establishing causation between the Marcellus Shale industry and the elevated barium levels, but the circumstantial evidence is strong: barium values are very high in the wastewater, which is finding its way in large amounts into the Ohio River, where barium values are rising sharply.

  1. Locations were found with Google Maps, based on location description. In most cases, samples were taken from specific locks and dam structures, allowing for a fairly exact location. Some other locations are designated by the name of a small town, in which case, the mapped locations may be off by a mile or so.
  2. There is now an eighteenth testing location, McAlpine, 0.2 miles downstream of the Louisville testing station.
  3. While surface water is typically low in barium here, well water can be a significant issue:

    The drinking water of many communities in Illinois, Kentucky, Pennsylvania, & New Mexico contains concentrations of barium that may be 10 times higher than the drinking water standard. The source of these supplies is usually well water. Currently 60 ground water supplies and 1 surface water supply exceeds 1000 ug/l.

  • While these numbers are not alarming, it is worth noting that they are measured at an extremely well mixed area (locks and dams) of a massive river; at the time of this writing, the flow at Wheeling, WV was 134,700 cubic feet per second. Barium values on some tributaries could be much higher.