CINCINNATI -- The Chevy Suburban full of women from the University of Cincinnati left campus early on a sunny spring Friday, their spirits high. They blasted Weird Al Yankovic and Creedence 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.
She moved to Northern Kentucky from Corbin, Kentucky, to pursue her graduate studies in geology and work on a field project that offered her a chance to combine work in communities with work in a lab.
Fracking In Ohio
Drilling vertically for natural gas and oil in Ohio is nothing new. What is new, however, is the horizontal drilling technique that allows a single well pad to create multiple pathways miles underground as they turn in different directions and extend into the shale rock formations that sit far below the earth’s surface.
Ohio’s eastern edges include portions of both the Marcellus Shale, which sits closer to the surface than the Utica Shale, which rests thousands of feet below the Marcellus Shale. It takes more drilling to get to, and it’s rich with oil and natural gases, including its main component, methane, a potent and flammable hydrocarbon that contributes to global climate change.
Close to 1,000 horizontal natural gas wells have already been drilled in Ohio, according to the Ohio Department of Natural Resources. More than half of those are in the rural stretches of Carroll County, with a population of just less than 30,000 in 399 square miles. In contrast, the Greater Cincinnati Metropolitan Area has a population of more than 2 million and stretches over nearly 4,500 square miles.
Carroll County is just the beginning. This spring the chief of the ODNR’s Oil and Gas Division predicted the state could eventually have at least 20,000 Utica wells in place. Check here for weekly updates on drill permits and drilling activities in Ohio.
A History Of Unclear Water Concerns
Because it uses millions of gallons of water that is then tainted with chemicals and sand, wherever fracking starts, questions about water quality follow.
A series of lawsuits in Pennsylvania, Texas and other fracking hotspots around the country have alleged either that the fracking process itself or the fluids pumped into and out of the ground to fracture the deeply buried shale have contaminated surrounding water supplies. One fracking-focused law firm posted a 240-page directory of lawsuits, many of which revolve around environmental concerns.
While landowners in many of those cases cry contamination because of raised levels of gases, in particular methane, in their water, industry representatives and fracking supporters dismiss the claims.
Their argument is simple: Areas are chosen for fracking because they already have high levels of natural gases sitting below them. Finding raised levels of natural gases, including methane, in local water supplies after fracking has started doesn’t prove a causal relationship between drilling and water quality. There are no baseline statistics against which to judge post-fracking water—no snapshot of “before” to prove that the “after” is any different.
But 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.
Already, the research team has been able to explain some preliminary results to residents. Botner found that a few water wells did have slightly elevated levels of methane, but was able to determine that the type of methane in the water was naturally occurring—it hadn’t been caused by natural gas drilling.
“Overall, the project is very important because little or no published work on methane in groundwater in the Utica Shale region of eastern Ohio has been done,” Botner said.
Listening And Learning
Whether they live in log cabins set on gravelly hillsides off rural roads or on farms along state routes, residents in Carroll County share concerns about losing not only their water, but their quality of life.
They have cause for concern. An explosive well-pad fire in nearby Monroe County in late June 2014 spread to 20 trucks on the pad. A fish kill nearby is currently under investigation by the ODNR.
Carroll County is particularly vulnerable because of its sparse population and regulations. It has no municipal water supplies and no zoning laws (except for septic tanks). A local non-profit, Carroll Concerned Citizens, provides a forum for residents to learn about fracking and connect with government officials, but still, misinformation is common.
As a steady stream of trucks roars down their narrow roads, construction on new hotels seems oddly out of place along the rolling hills of farmland. Residents, who are watching warily as rent prices rise and newcomers from Texas and North Dakota move in for who knows how long, have plenty of questions.
Botner, who grew up on a farm and whose mountain accent blends with those of her Ohio agricultural peers, understands residents’ confusion and concerns.
“I believe scientists have a very important role in this type of field work,” she said. “These residents are very scared about what is happening close by, sometimes in their own backyard. It is difficult for community members to find a source of information they can trust.”
That trust extends beyond simply gathering data and reporting it back.
“We are able to give unbiased, sound information to community members and hopefully ease some of their fears of fracking,” she said. “Every time I am in the field and hear a ‘thank you’ from the participants, it reminds me of why I love working on this project and why it is important.”
Editor’s Note: WCPO Contributing Environmental Editor Elissa Yancey also works as an associate professor of journalism and an affiliate professor of environmental studies at the University of Cincinnati.