by Tony Moore
Crack open the natural-gas exploration nutshell, and there’s a world of mixed messages inside: It’s helping boost the balance sheets of local municipalities, it’s causing boom-and-bust cycles in rural communities. It’s creating hundreds of thousands of jobs across the country, it’s polluting the air, the water and flora and fauna. It’s the greatest thing to happen in the energy complex, it’s the worst thing to happen to the environment.
Different camps have different ideas about the realities of the situation, but all opinions aside, Dickinson’s Alliance for Aquatic Resource Monitoring (ALLARM) is working to ensure that any adverse effects of this exploration won’t extend to local waterways.
Since 2005, 8,300 shale-gas wells have been drilled in Pennsylvania, and with this much industrial activity, there are always concerns. Add to the equation more than 83,000 miles of rivers and streams in Pennsylvania, and any concerned citizen will be glad to know that there are thousands of dedicated volunteers monitoring the state’s waterways, on watch for any kind of environmental transgression.
In the middle of it all is ALLARM, a group that’s been spearheading volunteer water-monitoring efforts since 1986 by preparing citizens to monitor their own streams—an initiative that relies on a combination of hard science and dedicated volunteers.
Julie Vastine ’03, director of ALLARM (and recently invited to join the National Water Quality Monitoring Council), says the process comes down to two simple steps: training people to use scientific techniques to monitor their local streams (using “verifiable and robust” quality assurance/quality control methods) and letting them be the eyes, ears and voices of their local waterways.
“What we do is train people to take chemistry measurements to determine if flowback water is making its way into small streams and to use a visual-assessment checklist to see if different aspects of the gas infrastructure are affecting different parts of local streams,” Vastine says.
That checklist is part of a larger water-monitoring protocol developed by ALLARM’s founder, Candie Wilderman, professor of environmental science and Walter E. Beach ’56 Distinguished Chair in Sustainability Studies, and ALLARM’s assistant director, Jinnie Monismith, in 2009. Once fleshed out, the protocol was vetted through multiple agencies, including the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP).
“It took a year to build interest and receive feedback from members of the scientific community. Now we’re looked to as the volunteer monitoring protocol to use for shale-gas monitoring,” Vastine says, noting that variations of the ALLARM protocol are used in Maryland, Michigan, New York, Ohio and West Virginia and will be soon in Virginia.
In the hydraulic-fracturing process—better known as “fracking”—water is pumped into the ground at shale-busting pressure to force the shale to release the trapped underground gas. Drillers drive anywhere from four million to 10 million gallons of water into a well, and it’s approximated that 10 to 15 percent of that water, dubbed “flowback,” comes back up—and it comes back up 10 to 20 times saltier than ocean water and rich with heavy metals.
To test for flowback, ALLARM volunteers check the water’s conductivity—its ability to carry an electrical charge—as these contaminants allow for better conductivity than normal stream water. If there is a spike in conductivity, volunteers are instructed to retest and collect a sample for barium and strontium analysis (unique flowback-water chemical fingerprints) and call enforcement agencies.
To verify that volunteers are using their conductivity meters correctly, they send samples to the ALLARM lab twice a year. This summer, ALLARM lab coordinator Andrew McGowan ’16, a biochemistry & molecular biology major, was responsible for verifying 63 samples sent in by volunteers across the state.
To date, 42 violations have been reported using the visual-assessment checklist, and two ALLARM partner organizations have reported flowback pollution events.
Vastine explains that many of the detected anomalies can lead to fish kills, biota damage and invasive species infesting the waters. This information is especially relevant in Pennsylvania, as the state has more miles of streams and rivers than any state but Alaska.
At this point, ALLARM has trained and is coordinating with nearly 700 volunteers through 24 community partnerships at 330 sites across Pennsylvania, West Virginia and New York. This summer, Vastine, McGowan, Caroline Kanaskie ’17 and Noah Burchard ’16 traveled throughout Pennsylvania to meet up with volunteers, trekking through the heartland of fracking.
ALLARM members began with a group called God’s Country Water Dogs, located in Potter County, with whom ALLARM has been working with since 2011. The Water Dogs had been keeping data on paper and in various electronic formats, and this summer ALLARM helped them transfer their findings into Excel spreadsheets that can easily be shared and updated.
In Tioga County, a representative from the Conservation District told the group about how the construction of pipelines caused mud slides so severe that railroad cars were used to stop them. In Bradford, a county with more than 1,300 wells, the group saw the social effects of fracking, as the industry seemed to be in a bust phase and development had stopped, leaving many building projects standing incomplete. And in Susquehanna County, the ALLARM team met with a number of the Dimock residents whose drinking water had been affected by drilling processes.
“I’m from Tamaqua, Pa., and we don’t have any shale-gas drilling, but we do have coal mining,” says Kanaskie, an environmental-science major who was responsible for the Potter County data project this summer. “So seeing how other parts of the state have been dealing with the natural-resource-extraction process—and seeing the beauty of the state on our trips and being able to help different community partners—has been really meaningful.”
This summer, Burchard developed “Fracking 101,” which will serve as a primer for future ALLARM volunteers and students alike. He also helped run summer workshops and recently fielded his first phone call and e-mail exchange with a volunteer, through which he provided technical support.
“It’s been really amazing to see how our workshops throughout the state empower communities and help them monitor and protect their streams,” says the environmental-studies major. “The interface with communities, the personal interaction—it’s been really great.”
For someone who often finds himself lost in the lab, McGowan says getting out into the community as extensively as he did this summer added a valuable layer to the project. “You get to know the volunteers and their stream sites from the samples they send in,” he says. “And it’s really rewarding to place faces with the names.”
And it’s been rewarding for Pennsylvania’s waterways as well.
“The violations our volunteers have reported have gotten boots on the ground to investigate further,” Vastine says. “We’ve worked with communities on stream monitoring for 28 years, and we know that when you have people doing citizen science, you need to have scientifically robust methodology. DEP now has their inspectors prioritize the calls coming from our volunteers, because they know what they’re doing.”
Published September 3, 2014