UC scientists launch first probe of well water before fracking begins to set baseline standards

Eastern Ohio landowners worry about contamination

CINCINNATI -- The Chevy Suburban full of women from University of Cincinnati left campus early on a sunny spring Friday, their spirits high. They blasted Weird Al Yankovic and Credence Clearwater Revival from their smartphones, and might well have passed for a group of collegians headed out for a weekend beach adventure if it weren’t for the trunk full of test tubes, storage containers and assorted plastic bags and coolers.

The all-female team, part of the Groundwater of Eastern Ohio Testing and Analysis Project, GEOTAP for short, was on a serious scientific mission.

Since January, geology graduate student Claire Botner has traveled the winding roads from Cincinnati to Carroll County, Ohio, home to more than half of the state’s producing natural gas drilling wells and thousands more sites approved for future drilling, according to the research collaborative Ohio Policy Matters.

The unconventional gas drilling has a much more common name—fracking—that Botner knows triggers concerns for Carroll County residents, all of whom get their drinking water from wells on or near their property.

Botner and the rest of the team spend hours listening to landowners’ stories about discolored water, seismic testing and ceaseless truck traffic as they collect water samples from residents who live at varying distances from newly constructed fracking well pads.

“The goal of this research is to monitor the groundwater of Carroll County and the surrounding area before and after shale gas development to see if fracking may cause contamination or changes in the water quality,” said Botner, 23.

In Ohio, unlike other states, researchers started gathering data ahead of the drilling cycle. GEOTAP is an effort led by UC geology professor Amy Townsend-Small, who is a national expert on testing for the presence of specific types of methane in the environment.

She trained Botner and then accompanied her on the sample collection trip, bringing along three other female scientists-in-training.

“Training the next generation of scientists is an important part of all university research, and I’m proud to be mentoring all my students, particularly women, who have traditionally been underrepresented in the sciences,” said Townsend-Small, 37.

WCPO Insiders can read more about the students' work and what the team's preliminary research has found.

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