Study finds no evidence of groundwater contamination from fracking

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A University of Cincinnati study found no evidence of groundwater contamination from recent oil and natural gas drilling in several Appalachian counties in eastern Ohio.

Geologists from UC examined drinking water in five counties — Carroll, Harrison, Stark, Belmont and Columbiana — where many residents rely on private underground wells for their water needs. The geologists hypothesized that methane concentrations would increase as the number of shale gas wells in the study area increased. The results, however, showed the opposite.

Claire Botner, the research assistant for the study, called the results reassuring.

“At the time, I think it was great that it showed their groundwater is clean,” she said. “And as we sampled more and more, it reaffirmed it.”

The study is the first of its kind in Ohio to analyze whether the hydraulic fracturing process — also known as “fracking” — creates high levels of methane in well water. The results were published in the journal Environmental Monitoring and Assessment.

The results are hopeful for residents, said Melanie Houston, director of climate programs for the Ohio Environmental Council. But there should be continued monitoring, she added.

Researchers did find variable methane concentrations in the drinking water — ranging from 0.2 milligrams per liter to 25.3 milligrams per liter — with three sites showing levels strong enough to potentially catch fire or explode in enclosed spaces.

“This study isn’t one and done,” Houston said. “I would like to see more monitoring done in the area to ensure residents are receiving clean water.”

The results were not surprising because two dozen other studies reached the same conclusion, said Jackie Stewart, state director of Energy In Depth, a research and education organization that is financed by the oil and gas industry. 

“What was surprising was the peer-reviewed research team admitted that the study did not meet their hypothesis,” she said.

Stewart said hydraulic fracturing, a method of producing fractures in wells thousands of feet deep to reach oil and natural gas deposits in shale rock such as Utica and Marcellus, has been effective in Ohio.

“Given the fact Ohio is leading the country in carbon emission reductions because of the increased use of natural gas, I believe that fracking has been a win for both the environment and the economy,” she said.

Carbon dioxide emissions in Ohio have fallen since 2000, but the state remains among the nation’s worst emission producers, according to figures released in January by the U.S. Energy Information Administration. The state produced the seventh-highest carbon dioxide emissions in 2015, the last year examined in the analysis, putting nearly 215 million metric tons of the greenhouse gas into the atmosphere.

UC researchers examined drinking water in the five eastern Ohio counties from January 2012 to February 2015. A majority of testing took place in Carroll County, the center of the Utica Shale boom in eastern Ohio. In total, geologists collected 180 groundwater samples. Twenty-four water wells in three counties were sampled multiple times during the multiyear period.

The researchers looked for evidence of methane, the primary component in natural gas. They also studied changes in the acidity, or PH, of the water and changes to its conductivity.

They found no increase in methane concentration or composition in the groundwater, despite the presence of new shale gas wells drilled in the study area. They also didn’t find higher concentrations of methane levels in closer proximity to drilling sites.

Amy Townsend-Small, associate professor of geology at UC, said the results emphasize the importance of monitoring groundwater to ensure people have access to clean drinking water.

“People in Appalachia deserve to have access to monitoring in their area,” she said, “Just because they live in a rural area doesn’t mean they can’t get contaminated water.”


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