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Friday, March 18, 2011

WJU students create water safety plan for drilling communities

By Keri Brown

March 18, 2011 · Drilling for gas in the underground Marcellus shale is a growing industry in West Virginia, but some residents are concerned about what environmental effects the drilling may have, including on water supplies.
A group of biology students at Wheeling Jesuit University  have created a plan to help people learn about their water quality.

Biology professor at Wheeling Jesuit University, Ben Stout monitors waterways and conducts research on coal slurry, but lately he’s focused his attention on another major industry: natural gas drilling.

“What we did with coal slurry and underground injection is we went and looked at the water in people’s wells and then we also looked at coal slurry itself and made a comparison between with the heavy metals each and found it to be very characteristic signature and the same thing needs to be done with the produced water from fracking is the 350 million year-old brine water is going to have a unique chemical signature and we need to know what that is now,” said Stout.

In natural gas drilling, companies use a process called hydro-fracturing to help break the Marcellus shale underground and this in turn lets the natural gas escape.

Stout said the water mixture forcefully pumped into the wells contains sand and toxic chemicals including benzene, arsenic and barium. He said the waste can end up in wells, springs and local waterways. That’s why Stout challenged some of his Biology students to come up with a way to help people test the quality of their tap water.

 “The first step is everyday, you need to test your water for conductivity. Conductivity is the ability of water to conduct an electrical current and the more dissolved salts in your water, the better it conducts so what we are seeing with Marcellus shale produced water is extremely high conductivities, off the scale of anything that you would normally see in your well or spring,” said Stout.

The conductivity measurement is part of a three step process that students created.

“We just have this pen that every morning you can turn on and you can fill your cup up in the morning with water and you just simply put your pen into the water and you wait for the number to start even out and you can record this so that way you can have a running record of what you are recording what your water conductivity is and if you see it start to elevate then you can go and take a sample of your water and send it to one of the laboratories that we mentioned in our paper,” said Andrea Fitzgibbon, a junior biology major.

The one page handout includes web links to other resources and companies that sell affordable test kits to further analyze water samples. After establishing background water quality conditions, Stout said people also need to be vigilant about recording the color, smell and odor of their water in a notebook each day.  

The project hits close to home for Wheeling Jesuit senior Brady O’ Neil of Marshall County.

“They have already bought up all of the area around where I live.  I think for the most around, I don’t even know if there is anybody left within a few miles that are still holding out. I’m pretty sure that everybody is sold out.”

O’Neil said the project made him more aware of the natural gas drilling process and he’s concerned about what might be going back into the waterways.
His classmate, John Ruberg said he feels good about having a positive impact on his community.

“It’s empowering since people know more about the process and can make an informed decision, will help a lot,” said Ruberg.

There are more than 55,000 oil and gas wells in West Virginia.

Stout said he is testing waterways in Greene County Pennsylvania, an area with a lot of Marcellus drilling sites and wells. He and his students are also collecting data near Oglebay Park in Ohio County, where drilling is expected to begin soon.

Stout said people need to be proactive.

“A lot of the constituents, especially heavy metals that are of primary water quality concern, in other words primary drinking water standards are colorless, odorless and tasteless and they need to protect themselves and not expect other people to protect them so you need to take the bull by the horns, take these three simple steps protect yourself and your family,” said Stout. (Click on Protect Yourself handout above.)


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