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Ohio Utica Shale

EID offers five facts about Duke's study of Pennsylvania creek

By Bob Downing Published: October 3, 2013

From Energy in Depth, a national pro-drilling group:

Five Facts About Duke’s Latest Anti-Shale Study

Posted by: Katie Brown
Researcher // Washington, D.C.


The Duke team is at it again, this time with a new study that claims to have found “elevated levels of radioactivity” in a western Pennsylvania creek, which they blame on wastewater generated by Marcellus Shale development. But a closer look at the study, and the facts, tells another story – a story far different from what you’ve probably already seen in the media.


Here are five facts you need to know about this latest Duke study:


FACT 1: Treatment facilities stopped receiving Marcellus wastewater in 2011.


Duke Professor and study co-author Avner Vengosh characterized the study this way to the press:


"We were surprised by the magnitude of radioactivity…It's unusual to find this level," he says, urging that other sites be investigated and that such water not [be] discharged.


This is actually really surprising, but not for the reason Vengosh believes. This study was conducted from August 2010 to November 2012 and focused on the Josephine Brine Treatment Facility, a facility that Marcellus operators stopped using in May 2011. Members of the Marcellus Shale Coalition (who make up 96 percent of all production in the Marcellus) sent a letter in April 2011to state regulators stating that they would no longer take flowback water to treatment facilities that discharge wastewater into rivers – including the one featured in the Duke report. To its credit, Bloombergactually makes this point, quoting the manager of the treatment plant as saying:


We are not processing any unconventional wastewater. We manifest every gallon of water that comes in. As part of the manifest, they make a declaration that the water is coming from the well where it is listed.”


Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection has similarly affirmed that the plant stopped accepting Marcellus Shale wastewater in 2011.


Interestingly, the authors of the report admit this, albeit buried in the “Supplemental Information” section:


“Certain POTWs originally accepted wastewater associated with unconventional Marcellus Shale gas wells until May 2011, when the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (PADEP) requested that oil and gas operators voluntarily cease disposal of wastewater from unconventional wells (i.e., Marcellus wastewater) to POTWs. However, private companies (that operated brine treatment facilities for several decades) still operate in western Pennsylvania treating conventional oil and gas produced water” (p. S3).


In the main body of the study, the authors make an entirely different claim: they say that in 2011 wastewater from the Marcellus was simply “reduced”:


“During 2010 and 2011, a large portion (>50%) of wastewater treated in this facility was from the unconventional shale gas wells of the Marcellus Formation, but by September 2011 the amount of the Marcellus wastewater was reduced relative to produced water from conventional sources” (p. B).


FACT 2: Researchers took samples directly at the source.


As page S4 of the “Supplemental Information” section also reveals, the sample from 2012 withthe highest reading for total dissolved solids (TDS) downstream was taken only one meter from the source. That’s like taking an air sample directly from the tailpipe of a car and declaring an air quality crisis.


What’s more is that the highest reading came from a sample in 2012, which we know was well after that facility stopped receiving Marcellus Shale wastewater. The second highest reading, taken only 10 meters downstream, was also from a 2012 sample.


Meanwhile, the researchers failed to take samples from areas actually near water intake facilities. Needless to say, there were also no tests done on the drinking water that was processed from those facilities. If this study were truly motivated by public health concerns – and not simply delivering the prescribed headlines – then wouldn’t you expect the researchers to test the water that folks are actually going to be consuming?


FACT 3: DEP concluded drinking water was safe from radioactive contaminants.


Notably, in March 2011, state regulators conducted a series of tests on drinking water suppliers in Western Pennsylvania and found no radioactive contaminants in the water.


As the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review reported:


A battery of tests has showed no radioactive contaminants in the water used and produced at 12 of 14 drinking water suppliers in Western Pennsylvania, according to state environmental regulators.

Wastewater treatment plants and drinking water suppliers performed extra tests throughout March, reacting to media reports that questioned whether an increase in Marcellus shale drilling had led to the introduction of radioactive chemicals into public water.


FACT 4: Radium levels were below established thresholds.


The report found:


“The total activity of radium (i.e., 226Ra + 228Ra) in wastewater effluent (226Ra = 0.11 to 0.19 Bq/L and 228Ra = 0.04 to 0.13 Bq/L; SI Table S3) was well below the industrial discharge limit of 2.2 Bq/L (60 pCi/L in the U.S)” (p. D).


That’s a point that all the media hype left out and the Duke researchers didn’t bother to comment on. After all the talk of high levels of radiation, clearly designed to secure headlines (like all good Park-funded studies; see more on that below), it turns out that radium levels were below established thresholds.


FACT 5: The study was funded by the anti-fracking Park Foundation.


The Duke study was funded by a well-known outfit called the Park Foundation, which has funneled literally millions of dollars to research intended to malign shale development. From the report:


“We gratefully acknowledge funding from Fred and Alice Stanback and Park Foundation to the Nicholas School of the Environment” (p. H).


We’ve covered the Park Foundation at EID extensively, so we won’t get into all of the details here. But if you need a quick refresher, its president actually said in 2011: “In our work to oppose fracking, the Park Foundation has simply helped fuel an army of courageous individuals and NGOs…”


To be clear, just because researchers received funding from a particular source does not automatically disqualify their research as a tool for public understanding. But when looking at the significant flaws listed above, one might look at the funding source and understand why those flaws exist.

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Utica and Marcellus shale web sites

Ohio Department of Natural Resources' Division of Oil and Gas Resources Management State agency Web site.

ODNR Division of Oil and Gas Resources Management. State drilling permits. List is updated weekly.

ODNR Division of Geological Survey.

Ohio Environmental Protection Agency.

Ohio State University Extension.

Ohio Farm Bureau.

Ohio Oil and Gas Association, a Granville-based group that represents 1,500 Ohio energy-related companies.

Ohio Oil & Gas Energy Education Program.

Energy In Depth, a trade group.

Marcellus and Utica Shale Resource Center by Ohio law firm Bricker & Eckler.

Utica Shale, a compilation of Utica shale activities.

Landman Report Card, a site that looks at companies involved in gas and oil leases.FracFocus, a compilation of chemicals used in fracking individual wells as reported voluntarily by some drillers.

Chesapeake Energy Corp,the Oklahoma-based firm is the No. 1 driller in Ohio.

Rig Count Interactive Map by Baker Hughes, an energy services company.

Shale Sheet Fracking, a Youngstown Vindicator blog.

National Geographic's The Great Shale Rush.

The Ohio Environmental Council, a statewide eco-group based in Columbus.

Buckeye Forest Council.

Earthjustice, a national eco-group.

Stop Fracking Ohio.

People's Oil and Gas Collaborative-Ohio, a grass-roots group in Northeast Ohio.

Concerned Citizens of Medina County, a grass-roots group.

No Frack Ohio, a Columbus-based grass-roots group.

Fracking: Gas Drilling's Environmental Threat by ProPublica, an online journalism site.

Penn State Marcellus Center.

Pipeline, blog from Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on Marcellus shale drilling.

Allegheny Front, environmental public radio for Western Pennsylvania.