Yale University studies fracking in Barnesville

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Yale study CJ Gerber
A Yale University research team will be stationed at the Olney Friends School, in Barnesville, Ohio, as they study the effects of fracturing fluids and waste on residential water and air quality. CJ Gerber, an Ohio State engineering student and research team member, shows how the team collects tap water samples that will later be processed at a Yale University lab. (Catie Noyes photos)

BARNESVILLE, Ohio — Yale University researchers will be calling the Olney Friends School in Barnesville their home base as they study chemicals potentially released in fracking practices and their effects on air and water quality.

“Our research question is to determine whether or not people who live closer to unconventional natural gas wells have higher levels of pollutants in their air or water,” said Nicole Deziel, an environmental exposure scientist, epidemiologist and assistant professor at the Yale School of Public Health.

Developing the study

With the expansion of unconventional natural gas development in eastern Ohio and Pennsylvania over the last five-10 years, Deziel said a lot of previous studies on fracking and the environment had been conducted in Colorado, Texas and Pennsylvania, but not as much in Ohio. “The data are emerging, but it’s pretty limited in terms of addressing this question about contamination,” she said.

The study emerged from a previous analysis where Yale researchers looked at more than 1,000 chemicals that have been linked to fracturing fluids and waste. Researchers found a majority of those chemicals lacked toxicity information, specifically reproductive and developmental toxicity information — which are key indicators for an environmental hazard.

Of the 1,000 chemicals, 240 had toxicity information and 157 of those had some evidence of reproductive or developmental toxicity. Deziel and her team are seeking out those chemicals and determining if there are measurable amounts of toxicity among them.

How it works

Yale researchers recruited interested Belmont County residents through fliers, mailers and news articles. Their goal is to visit 100 homes in Belmont County before they conclude their field study in August.

For the initial home visit, researchers collect a drinking water sample, “usually from the kitchen tap,” said Deziel, and an air sample. Two air sample collectors are left inside the home and outside the home for nine days. Researchers also ask questions about the participant’s home, community and health in a survey and collect a GPS reading to measure the location of the home.

After nine days, the air samplers are picked up and brought back to the lab. “It’s very nonintrusive, a very low burden on the participants, and they receive $20 for participating,” said Deziel. Samples are sent back to the Yale University school of chemical and environmental engineering for analysis, which Deziel said could take several months before results are complete.

Olney Friends School

Well pad in Belmont County
Yale University researchers will be collecting water and air samples from the residents of Belmont County in order to determine if active well pads, like this one located in Belmont County, release
harmful chemicals into the
environment. The researchers will be conducting their field study in Barnesville and hope to visit 100 homes by August.

Ken Hinshaw, director of the Olney Friends School, said he heard out about Yale’s intent to study fracking and its need to find a location to do the study. “We have an interest in fracking here at the school, as it is going on all around us,” said Hinshaw.

“The school has not leased its mineral rights on our 350 acres because we have been concerned about the negative environmental effects.” Deciding to hold off on selling the schools mineral rights was a tough decision because there was a lot of money involved but, “the technology was not developed enough to consider long term air and water quality effects,” he said.

Hinshaw added, the school has made energy development a part of its curriculum to hopefully better understand the process. The opportunity to have the Yale research team work from the school seemed like an opportunity to get some more answers. “We are a school and we are interested in the science and finding answers,” he said.

Similar research

A similar research study was conducted in Carroll County, from February 2012 to February 2015, by the University of Cincinnati. Amy Townsend-Small, from the department of geology, led the study looking into the effects of hydraulic fracturing on groundwater in the Utica shale of Ohio.

Over the course of three years, the research team collected samples four times a year from 23 wells in five Ohio shale counties including Columbiana, Belmont, Harrison and Stark, with most of the sampling centered in Carroll County. The study was funded by the Deer Creek Foundation and the David and Sara Weston Foundation with a three-year, $400,000 grant that purchased necessary equipment to measure methane levels.

According to Townsend-Small, no evidence of natural gas was found in the groundwater during their study. “We analyzed methane. We didn’t find any of the toxic compounds (in groundwater samples),” said Townsend-Small.

In response to this new study emerging from Yale, she said, “we need a lot more studies, I am glad that they are doing this research.” She added, “They are doing different analysis, and they are doing air samples which we didn’t do. That was a big concern with people, along with their ground water.”

The team

Deziel was able to recruit to Ohioans, familiar with the Belmont County area. CJ Gerber is a civil and environmental engineering student at Ohio State University who said he has always had a concern for the environment. Having family that grew up in Barnesville, he said he was aware of the citizens concern over fracking. When he was connected with Deziel and learned of her plans to study the Barnesville area, he said it seemed “like a great research opportunity.”

Courtney Pedersen, from Jackson County, is a recent graduate of the Yale School of Public Health. Having Deziel as a professor, she had heard about the project and was interested in helping out. “My home area has been really affected by conventional and natural gas. I thought it would be a great opportunity to give back to the community by contributing any knowledge I gain from this study,” she said.

Deziel said current funding for this study is coming directly from the university, and they have had no contact with any shale companies or environmental groups. For more information, contact the study staff at 740-792-6040 or email owaqs@yale.edu.

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