Unconventional oil and gas development (UOGD), commonly known as fracking, has helped Pennsylvania retain its status as a leading energy exporter, but UOGD processes come with a host of environmental and public health concerns. A new grant from HEI Energy will allow researchers to explore possible links between fracking and water contaminants in southwestern Pennsylvania.
The Penn State-led research team will examine more than 7,000 water samples from Beaver, Greene and Washington counties for 40 diverse chemical signatures that may indicate water contamination. The researchers aim to identify whether these contaminants — like sulfate and benzene — are part of the area’s background geochemistry, or if they originated from legacy acid mine drainage or a specific phase of the fracking process. They plan to solicit public input to guide their work.
“In Washington County, which has legacy coal mines and a long history of UOGD, communities are experiencing rare instances of childhood cancers like Ewing sarcoma,” said Jennifer Baka, assistant professor of geography at Penn State and the project’s principal investigator. “There’s a lot of concern about fracking. We want to go to the communities and elicit what public health and environmental concerns they have and use that information to inform a geoscientific analysis.”
The new research builds on previous work conducted in northeast Pennsylvania by co-investigator Susan Brantley, Barnes Professor of Geosciences, and her research group at Penn State. Brantley’s team studied the impacts of fracking in areas of the northeast with little to no overlap of resource extraction activities. As UOGD was the major activity impacting the area, the researchers were able to identify environmental contaminants from fracking and where in the process the contaminants originated.
Baka, Brantley and their colleagues have compiled the previous studies’ findings in a database that they will use to determine whether contaminants are associated with the area’s background geochemistry, acid mine drainage or specific UOGD processes.
“There are two hotbeds of shale gas development in Pennsylvania: one in the southwest and one in the northeast,” said Brantley, who also directs Penn State’s Earth and Environmental Systems Institute. “We first studied the effects of the impact on groundwater and surface water chemistry in the northern part, where water resources were not impacted by heavy oil and gas development before the recent fracking boom. Now we are trying to disentangle the chemistry in the southwestern part, where mining proceeds around oil and gas wells, and some wells are drilled right through coal mines.”
Southwestern Pennsylvania’s extensive history of coal mining and conventional oil and gas development makes the new research a bit more complex, Baka said. She and her colleagues are trying not only to identify if contaminants originated from the fracking process itself and where exactly in the process they came from, but also if the impacts of legacy resource extraction have a compounding effect. In other words, could the effects of legacy coal mining and conventional oil and gas development make the potential impacts of UOGD worse?
Sam Shaheen, a graduate student in geosciences and Brantley’s advisee, has started sifting through the data for the southwestern region. So far, the work suggests that there may be increased contamination related to the overlay of multiple extraction activities, said Brantley.
The researchers will present their findings to the public to help address community concerns about UOGD. They also aim to establish communication channels between the public and decision makers when it comes to matters concerning fracking and its potential impacts. The scientists plan to start these conversations at this year’s Shale Network workshop in May. They want to make sure that the communities being impacted by energy development are being heard and are receiving the resources and assistance that they may need.
“I want to help these communities get a better sense of what’s going on, make them feel heard and try to get them some answers to their questions,” Baka said. “I think it’s important that I work in these communities for years and establish channels of communication among the public, scientists and government agencies. If people are generous with their time and confide in me what their concerns are, I want to make sure that they know I’m listening and trying to get them help.”