New Study Says Fracking Could be Tied into Groundwater Contamination in Marcellus Shale

There is a high risk of con­t­a­m­i­na­tion of ground­wa­ter by methane from the Mar­cel­lus Shale in parts of north­east­ern Penn­syl­va­nia, a new study sug­gests. Methane, which is a key com­po­nent of nat­ur­al gas extract­ed by hydraulic frac­tur­ing (aka frack­ing), could flow through nat­ur­al path­ways that link the Mar­cel­lus deep under­ground to aquifers near the sur­face. The study by researchers at Duke Uni­ver­si­ty finds evi­dence that such path­ways do, in fact, exist.

The study reports that a chem­i­cal analy­sis of 426 shal­low ground­wa­ter sam­ples found match­es with brine found in rock more than one mile deep, sug­gest­ing paths that would let gas or water flow up after drilling. While the flows weren’t linked to frack­ing, the study found nat­ur­al routes for seep­age into wells or streams. The Duke Uni­ver­si­ty researchers see “evi­dence of hydro­log­ic con­nec­tiv­i­ty.”

These find­ings are stir­ring more con­tro­ver­sy and debate in Penn­syl­va­nia, where frack­ing is sat­u­rat­ing the Mar­cel­lus gas field. It’s cre­at­ed an eco­nom­ic boon for the state and has been the major rea­son nat­ur­al gas prices have dropped dra­mat­i­cal­ly nation­wide to decade lows. It’s becom­ing a press­ing issue as nat­ur­al gas pro­vides more and more fuel for elec­tric util­i­ties and alter­na­tive fuel vehi­cles. There’s more fears being expressed by local res­i­dents and envi­ron­men­tal groups about water con­t­a­m­i­na­tion from the chem­i­cal mix­ture used to break apart the shale, or from gas leak­ing into water wells. Nat­ur­al gas pro­duc­tion com­pa­nies are debat­ing the study, say­ing it made clear that the ground­wa­ter sit­u­a­tion has noth­ing to do with shale devel­op­ment. So, the out­come is yet to be crys­tal clear, as oth­er research stud­ies in the past year are show­ing that frack­ing is only one ele­ment of a rapid­ly grow­ing ener­gy indus­try tied into sev­er­al eco­nom­ic and polit­i­cal issues at the state and fed­er­al lev­els.

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