Confused reaction to study on Marcellus Shale water quality

Posted: July 17, 2012

LAST WEEK, DUKE University released a study on water quality in the Marcellus Shale region. Many Pennsylvanians concerned about the state's new industry of gas drilling will be interested in the findings of this study. Here's a sampling of headlines from the media coverage:

Marcellus Shale study claims gas drilling did not contaminate drinking-water wells;

New research shows no Marcellus Shale pollution;

Pennsylvania fracking can put water at risk, Duke study finds;

Yet another study confirms fracking can pollute groundwater;

New study: Fluids from Marcellus Shale likely seeping into Pa. drinking water;

Findings are mixed in fracking-water study.

The sources of these headlines and stories include the Wall Street Journal, the Pittsburgh Post Gazette, BusinessWeek, ProPublica and others.

Here's the headline from the Duke University site: Natural underground pathways may be conduits for Marcellus brines.

Researchers took hundreds of samples from groundwater aquifers in six counties overlying the shale formation in northeastern Pennsylvania and found elevated brine. The study says it is unlikely that the elevated salinity is connected to hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking" — the explosive process by which gas is extracted from rock. But they are concerned that the presence of the brine suggests "natural pathways" leading up to aquifers from far below the surface, and that these pathways might allow gases from shale-gas wells to put drinking-water supplies at risk.

We're concerned, too — not just about the findings, but about the difficulty in finding our way through conflicting, often-politicized accounts of matters of scientific interest.

The politicization of science is nothing new, and especially not surprising when large industries are involved, like the tobacco industry's pushback on the cancer-causing properties of cigarettes in the 1950s, or the mother of all political/science battles: the debate about global warming and climate change, with some claiming, to the chagrin of most scientists, that it simply doesn't exist.

Duke researcher Avner Vengosh was almost sanguine about the range of coverage on the latest study. "It's inevitable that people take what they want to see from results," he said, especially when the findings are complex and not necessary black and white. He urges people to listen to the science. Easier said than done, especially in a country that is, at best, a "C" student when it comes to science and math, or when science's voice gets drowned out by money and politics.

The state's gas-drilling industry has developed almost overnight. Since 2009, more than 9,000 Marcellus drilling permits have been issued, and more than 4,000 wells have been drilled. The industry is well-organized and well-capitalized, and has friends in Harrisburg, including the governor.

That's why we're relieved about a recent measure that imposed a moratorium on drilling in southeastern Pennsylvania's South Newark Basin, although the bill sailed through the General Assembly like a stealth missile.

The speed with which the industry has grown, and drilling's potential environmental impacts, means that we need as many voices of reason — and of science — as possible. Good science takes time. So does understanding it.

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