Good Life

Focus on Research |

A spectrometer sits in the stream collecting data as the water swirls past it leaving behind information about levels of carbon and nitrate.

That data can serve as clues for researchers trying to find out if drilling deep into black shale formations in the search for natural gas is also polluting nearby waterways.

It’s also the type of data that is part of an initiative known as ShaleNetwork, which involves faculty and researchers from Penn State’s Earth and Environmental Systems Institute, Dickinson College, the University of Pittsburgh and the Consortium of Universities for the Advancement of Hydrological Sciences, along with volunteer groups. The behind-the-scenes effort brings together scientists, state agency employees and community volunteers who have a shared interest in monitoring waterways and bringing the results together in one place.

“The whole point of this initiative is to get as many people as possible sharing data and interacting with the data,” said Sue Brantley, director of EESI and a founder of ShaleNetwork. “There is significant public concern about water quality and quantity.”

The relatively recent development of Marcellus Shale natural gas reserves has led to concerns about whether the process of hydraulic fracturing or fracking — injecting a mix of water, sand and chemicals deep into the earth to release natural gas — could also be compromising the quality of nearby waters through surface spills, poor well construction or hydraulic fracturing. Collecting and testing water samples to establish baseline water quality before drilling begins is a crucial step in addressing that.

Brantley and others, who met recently for the ShaleNetwork’s annual workshop, would like to see more of the data that is already being gathered by volunteers, industry, private companies, state agencies and academics pooled in one place, making answering questions easier. Those questions about potential water quality impacts include:

Are there problems occurring, but just no data to demonstrate it?

Is water quality testing being done in the right places?

Will certain phases of shale gas development have impacts that are cumulative, rather than instantaneous and easily measured?

Julie Vastine, director of the Alliance for Aquatic Resource Monitoring at Dickinson College and one of the ShaleNetwork organizers, said that when there are new forms of natural resource extraction it is important to have diverse and representative monitoring taking place to determine how the environment and communities are effected — so the more coordinated data collection the better.

There are almost 7,000 Marcellus Shale wells drilled in Pennsylvania, but only about 1,000 water testing sites when agency, academic, consulting and volunteer collected data are combined. Pennsylvania, she noted, has more miles of streams than any other state.

Vastine’s organization, known as ALLARM, works with local volunteer-based groups that monitor waterways. While finding immediate problems is the first priority, Vastine said, those are uncommon — only 50 reportable incidents to date. So, it’s also important to conduct testing and analysis over a long period of time.

“Shale gas extraction is not going away,” Vastine said. “It’s really important that the data being collected is housed in a central agency so that in 20 to 30 years we know how the quality of streams has changed.”

The ShaleNetwork’s recent meeting, which EESI hosted, drew about 65 people from universities, high school, state offices, county and municipal governments and community organizations. Among those attending was Joyce McKay, with the Centre County Pennsylvania Senior Environmental Corps, which is actively involved in water quality monitoring.

McKay was there in part to learn about the software used to manage the data. She said she thinks it’s important to establish baseline water quality data for Pennsylvania watersheds because of both gas wells and requirements to cut pollution loads that find their way to the Chesapeake Bay via the Susquehanna River watershed.

The state, she noted, is “host to many natural gas wells and shale gas drilling sites located in areas near public sources of drinking water and private water wells and in rural areas close to streams used by the public for fishing and recreation.”

“Citizens ranging from high school students to seniors are concerned enough to take action through baseline water quality monitoring, especially in Pennsylvania’s Marcellus Shale region,” she said.

Anne Danahy is a writer in the Earth and Environmental Systems Institute in Penn State’s College of Earth and Mineral Sciences. She can be reached at