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Duke study finds no water pollution in Pennsylvania 'fracking'

Posted July 10, 2012
Updated July 11, 2012

— New research on Marcellus Shale gas drilling in Pennsylvania may only add fuel to the debate over whether the industry poses long-term threats to drinking water.

A paper published on Monday by Duke University researchers found that gas drilling in northeastern Pennsylvania did not contaminate nearby drinking water wells with salty water, which is a byproduct of the drilling.

"These results reinforce our earlier work showing no evidence of brine contamination from shale gas exploration," said Robert Jackson, director of Duke's Center on Global Change and a co-author of the paper, which appeared online in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The team evaluated 426 samples from groundwater aquifers in six counties.

The findings are noteworthy because last year the same Duke team found evidence that methane from gas wells had contaminated drinking water in Pennsylvania. That prompted harsh criticism from the top official at the state Department of Environmental Protection, who accused the researchers of bias and shoddy science.

Department of Environmental Protection spokesman Kevin Sunday said the agency was still reviewing the new study, but an industry group welcomed the results.

"This research demonstrates that freshwater aquifers in northeastern Pennsylvania have not been impacted by natural gas development activities," said Kathryn Klaber, president of the Marcellus Shale Coalition.

The Marcellus Shale is a gas-rich rock formation thousands of feet under large parts of Pennsylvania, New York, Ohio and West Virginia. Over the past five years, advances in drilling technology made the gas accessible, leading to a boom in production, jobs, and profits — and concerns about pollution.

The gas is pulled from the ground through a process called hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, in which large volumes of water, plus sand and chemicals, are injected deep underground to break shale apart and free the gas.

Environmentalists have claimed the brine water that comes up with the gas, the gas itself or the chemicals could pollute drinking water aquifers. The industry and many state and federal officials say the practice is safe when done properly, but there have also been cases where faulty wells did cause pollution.

Avner Vengosh, the new paper's lead author, said researchers are still in the early stages of understanding the links among reservoirs of deep brine, surface aquifers and gas drilling. The industry has long claimed that the final drilling takes place so far underground that fluids could never reach the surface.

Duke professor Avner Vengosh Duke professor discusses fracking study

But Vengosh said the research found that naturally-occurring pathways can bring the brine up into shallow aquifers, especially at the bottom of valleys. That could mean some areas are naturally more at risk of groundwater contamination from drilling, he said.

One groundwater expert said some, but not all, of the Duke findings seem to match existing research.

"They're basically supporting a lot of the things I found," said David Wunsch, Delaware's state geologist and the director of science and technology for the National Groundwater Association. He wrote a 1993 paper that looked at brine in Kentucky valley bottoms.

But Wunsch said the Duke team's claim that the shallow brine is coming from deep underground may be too simplistic.

"There's a lot of work already out here, they just haven't looked at it all," he said of research into Marcellus Shale gas drilling, adding that the Duke team may be "re-examining something that might have already been explained."

Wunsch believes it is more likely that the reservoirs of brine in valleys have been there for a long time, and he questioned the theory that much of that fluid comes from deep underground.

The Duke team still plans to analyze the recent water samples for evidence of fracking chemicals, Vengosh said. Their paper last year didn't find any evidence of those chemicals in water wells.

John Detwiler, an activist with Marcellus Protest, a group critical of fracking, declined to comment on the Duke study.

George Jugovic, president of PennFuture, an environmental group, said the potential for natural pathways to bring deep brine to surface areas raises concerns about whether fracking in some areas could increase the risks of such contamination.


This story is closed for comments.

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  • bluford2 Jul 11, 2012

    Paid oil/gas operatives are not telling the whole truth, only the evidence that supports drilling. If people want to learn the truth themselves and come to their own well researched opinions, there are a variety of sources which refute this and other studies like it with contrary findings.

  • gunny462 Jul 11, 2012

    "Water there is contaminated, just not with the one thing they were testing for this time!"

    And that was due to drilling or did it happen naturally?

    "We need to focus on clean energy for our future and not gamble on more dirty fuels"

    Sure, pay me to get a 'clean' car, ya know the ones that run on electricity powered by coal and gas generators. Then lets bring in the unions to ensure that they get paid generous sums of money to do nothing but produce obsolete panels that no one buys.

  • gunny462 Jul 11, 2012

    "I am glad they are making so much money. They will need it for their chemotherapy and radiation treatments. piene2"

    Has to be from all that radioactive saltwater they're using

  • westernwake1 Jul 10, 2012

    "I would say the Duke "researchers" have lost creditability." -Huey

    Yes, when their raw data shows 1 out of 6 wells is contaminated with brine and then their conclusion is "that gas drilling in northeastern Pennsylvania did not contaminate nearby drinking water wells with salty water" -- then the Duke researchers have lost all credibility. This is why over 200 other researchers are demanding the paper be retracted including the leading respected U.S. researcher in gas shale, Dr. Terry Engelder of Penn State.

  • carrboroyouth Jul 10, 2012

    "Duke University researchers found that gas drilling in northeastern Pennsylvania did not contaminate nearby drinking water wells with salty water, which is a byproduct of the drilling"

    Okay, so salt water did not contaminate the water, but what about other elements and chemicals? I want to be sure those don't end up in the water either. Fracking still scares me at this point. We can't undo contamination of water so I think we need to be extremely cautious with this.

  • Huey Jul 10, 2012

    I would say the Duke "researchers" have lost creditability. They sure have with me. If the news and experience in life have taught us anything it is that money can buy you most anything. I sure wish there was some organization that we could really trust to do the research on this. But til it can be shown to be safe I say "No way!". But then, I don't count.

  • djofraleigh Jul 10, 2012

    No wonder their school class sizes are half as big as ours, and can pay teachers and cops 2X --- COMMENT

    No state in the Union pays teachers double NC's, not at first year or 10th year or average.

    I'm against fracking 100%, but this implies teachers and cops would benefit greatly.

  • djofraleigh Jul 10, 2012

    In wake county, water quality won't allow having an outhouse for one 150# person unless in the middle of 3 acres, but it allows my neighbor to have 3 100#s+ dogs doing it every day on a quarter acre back yard. What lesson is there in that?

  • djofraleigh Jul 10, 2012

    Does the Gulf Gusher, the Horizon spill, ring any bells? The government is already trusting over a mile deep wells as of last year. The science on fracking is speculative, and will improve after experimentation, and problems.

    NC citizens will not get rich from Fracking, but we could be ruined if our water is ruined. Imagine paying for filtered bottled water to cook and drink!

  • piene2 Jul 10, 2012

    I guess science will not deter those who wish to keep this state poor. Don't drill. The people in the midwest are happy to sell us natural gas at 6000% profit, creating thousands of high paying jobs and filling their state coffers with cash. No wonder their school class sizes are half as big as ours, and can pay teachers and cops 2X as much. Not to mention no state income taxes.

    For several years, Orion has been sending out pleas for welders & electricians to go to TX & SD to work on the wells. With the shortage of skilled labor in this country, wages have soared to $100K a year! But, I guess NC prefers chronic unemployment to good paying jobs.

    I am glad they are making so much money. They will need it for their chemotherapy and radiation treatments.