Editor's note: The following article was written by Brian D. Drollette and published in the miner Institute Farm Report, a newsletter provided by The William H. Miner Agricultural Research Institute. Click here to read more from the August issue.

Last month I was stuck in a traffic jam in Montrose, Pennsylvania - a town boasting a population of 1,600 people. This wasn’t your typical Chazy, NY traffic jam where one tractor can hold up a mile-long line of cars. Instead, the roads were clogged with 18-wheelers hauling drill rigs, diesel powered pumps, water tanks, and sand. Although its size and location epitomize a quaint, quiet, middle-of-nowhere town, Montrose is, in fact, a booming industrial center. Like Chazy’s prominent dairy industry, Montrose is known for its natural gas industry. Pockets of gas trapped miles below the ground surface are the new black gold in places like Montrose, and hydraulic fracturing helps us tap into it.

Effect of fracking on groundwater

Natural gas production in the United States has increased dramatically in the past decade due to advancements in horizontal well drilling and hydraulic fracturing techniques. Commonly referred to as ‘fracking’, this technology creates interconnected networks of cracks in geologic formations and mobilizes miniscule pockets of gas tightly trapped within the rock. Wells are injected with a mixture of water, sand, and chemicals at pressures high enough to fracture the rock deep below the ground surface. Lately, the practice of fracking has come under scrutiny due to a variety of environmental and human health concerns. Drilling and fracking one gas well in the Marcellus Shale in the northeastern U.S. can use upwards of 7 million gallons of water, creating high demands on local watersheds. The waste produced when that water returns to the ground surface post-fracking is difficult to treat due to the high salinities that exist in the deep subsurface shale. Additionally, local groundwater is susceptible to chemical contamination through faulty well casings that penetrate the water table and surface spills of the fluids and wastes.

In Pennsylvania, 7,200 gas wells have been drilled across the state within the past five years. Montrose and other rural towns are perfect locations to collect groundwater and follow water quality trends over time. In my research, I focus on organic chemicals in groundwater and their relationship to hydraulic fracturing practices. I sample tap water from private homeowner groundwater wells and analyze it for the types of chemicals used in the fracking process. Three sampling campaigns and some 60 locations later, I have not found chemicals in the groundwater at levels exceeding the Environmental Protection Agency’s primary drinking water standards. This is great news for homeowners, as the water that they and their pets regularly drink is not contaminated; however, it presents a challenge for submitting articles to scholarly journals that require new and interesting scientific research.

After months of data mining, I’ve recently come upon some exciting preliminary conclusions. There are, in fact, trace levels of organic compounds that correlate with groundwater salinity from northeastern Pennsylvania. Researchers at Duke University have discovered that certain amounts of bromide and chloride in shallow groundwater are due to natural mixing with the salty brine in the Marcellus Shale and are not the result of fracking. These salts, miles below the ground surface, naturally migrated upward to the shallower groundwater. In my research I’ve shown that some organic compounds are also migrating from deep below. The compounds are unlikely related to fracking, as they do not correlate with the sample locations’ proximity to natural gas wells, the density of gas wells nearby, nor the age of the gas wells.

This research was the staple of my Master’s Thesis in Civil and Environmental Engineering at Duke University and I will continue to investigate groundwater chemistry as I pursue my Ph.D. in Chemical and Environmental Engineering at Yale University. At the Miner Institute, I spent a year working with Steve Kramer on phosphorus management in tile-drained fields and was a graduate of the Fall 2012 Applied Environmental Science Program (AESP). My time at Miner and involvement in AESP piqued my desire to pursue a graduate degree (or two) and gave me the experience needed to conduct high quality research with world-renowned scientists. Needless to say, I am forever grateful for the opportunities that came from the Miner Institute and I’m proud to be an AESP graduate.