Publish Date: 3/29/2011
March 29, 2011
MANSFIELD, PA— As the natural gas boom revs up in the Northern Tier of Pennsylvania, with all its benefits and drawbacks, local citizens are often left wondering where to turn for reliable, impartial information on a number of subjects. One of these local citizens, Paul Wendel, a science professor at Mansfield University, saw an opportunity for education.
He assembled the Marcellus Shale Water Study Group and designed a blind study to test water samples for barium and strontium, two substances whose presence would indicate that flowback fluid is interacting with ground water near gas wells.
“This study tests the quality of the gas company safeguards,” Wendel said. “The study has received no outside funding. It’s part of our job as scientists and educators, especially as employees of a state school.”
The study measures strontium and barium, which are natural substances but concentrations in ground water are typically low. If elevated levels were detected, it would indicate interaction between the gas well site and the aquifer. When a gas well is first drilled, a hole is bored to just below aquifer level. Then a steel tube, similar to a flu for a wood stove, is inserted. After that, cement is pumped from the bottom up on the outside of the steel tube, creating a casing to protect against groundwater contamination. According to Wendel, “If that’s done right, it works quite well.”
Wendel emphasizes that strontium and barium were not chosen because of any health concerns or for their toxicity. They were chosen because they are good indicators of contact between ground water and the well site. For drinking water, the maximum barium contaminant level set by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and used by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) is 2.0 mg/L or 2 parts per million. EPA has set no limit for strontium. Typically, barium levels of .6 mg/L are found in drinking water around here.
“I don’t expect any samples to test above toxic levels,” Wendel said. “But if they do, we expect to see it.”
In Phase I of the study, which is currently in progress, a total of 150 samples will be tested from a combination of sites within a quarter mile of an operating gas well and sites within a quarter mile of a permitted but not-yet-drilled gas well. The sites, all homes with private wells, are chosen at random by a computer program. No participants may volunteer for the study. There is no fee and the landowner receives a copy of the results of his or her sample.
After the computer chooses the locations, Wendel tracks down phone numbers and calls the homeowners to ask permission to come take samples. So far, almost everyone has agreed, though they are often puzzled at first. Sampling takes about thirty minutes. First, the equipment must be hooked up to the faucet and the water run until on-site measurements stabilize, approximately ten minutes. If there is a filter or some kind of treatment installed, the sample will be taken outside or right from the pump. After flow rate, temperature, conductivity, and pH are measured, the sampler turns the water to a slow flow rate and fills a Nalgene bottle (holding approximately one cup) specially cleaned with nitric acid to remove any inorganics. Sampling procedures follow USGS standards.
Once the samples have been labeled by date and a code that Wendel assigns the location, they are delivered to the chemists. The study is designed as a blind scientific experiment to avoid any possible bias on the part of the testers. The chemists have no idea whether the coded samples are from pre- or post- drilled sites. Wendel also slips in blanks—bottles of distilled water—or spiked samples to test for quality assurance. This is standard scientific process to achieve high quality, impartial data to be published in a peer reviewed journal.
In addition to Wendel, who teaches in the Physics Department and collects water samples, the study involves MU faculty Shaker Ramasamy, Greg Carson, Tony Kiessling, and Ruchi Tandon from the Chemistry Department who test the samples, Bingqing Liang of the Geography and Geology Department who helps with data management using the Geographic Information System, and two student interns.
Andy Ford, a chemistry major who did water quality analysis on a nuclear sub while in the U.S. Navy, gains valuable educational experience by conducting library research, assisting in the experimental design, and collecting water samples. Eric Otto, a biochemistry/computer information science/physics/mathematics major, calibrates instruments, prepares samples, and assists with data entry and analysis.
“Helping Dr. Wendel with this study has been very beneficial towards seeing how scientific studies are currently done in the world and has certainly impacted my future decisions towards my career choice,” Otto said.
Recently Ford went out early on a Saturday morning to collect water samples from the home of John and Eileen Firmani in Delmar Township. When he first got the phone call asking if he’d participate, Firmani says, “I wondered whether the study was sponsored by a gas company or if it was impartial.” He agreed because he and his wife, who recently moved here, have signed a lease and know there are wells being drilled around them. He was pleased that the University was conducting such a study.
"Having our science students actively involved in this project is what higher education is at its best, MU President Maravene Loeschke said. “It provides hands-on experience to our students, makes use of the brain power of our excellent faculty and students, and reinforces the importance of student involvement with community service."
Wendel’s long-range plan is for Phase II to re-test the pre-drill sites once the gas well has been drilled. After the data is collected, analyzed, and published in a professional journal, it will be made available locally.
For more information on the study, contact Wendel at firstname.lastname@example.org or (570) 662-4574.
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