The LCGC Blog: Citizen Science and Anecdotal Claims of Groundwater Contamination

It was a pretty significant fight to get our most recent paper into the scientific literature. But, after five reviewers opining and four submitted revisions later, we were able to publish a very unique piece of work characterizing anecdotal claims of groundwater contamination in shale energy basins across the United States.

It was a pretty significant fight to get our most recent paper into the scientific literature. But, after five reviewers opining and four submitted revisions later, we were able to publish a very unique piece of work characterizing anecdotal claims of groundwater contamination in shale energy basins across the United States (1).

Unconventional oil and gas development, which includes the process of hydraulic fracturing, has greatly bolstered the geopolitical standing of the United States in the world. Aqueous mixtures, including a multitude of different chemical components (friction reducers, antimicrobial agents, proppants), are pumped at high pressure to crack the low porosity shale. In many cases, unconventional oil and gas extraction ushered in a new set of industry giants. Many companies initially focused on conventional oil development remained there or diversified into other potential energy modalities (for example, biofuels). 

Historically, the oil and gas industry has not promoted a great deal of communication with the public, beyond standard propaganda. While that has changed to some degree in recent years, this prior lack of communication may have led to negative sentiments by some. Being such a massive multi-faceted industry, there are many potential routes where adverse chemical exposure could occur in humans and in the environment. There are still not a large enough number of environmental studies in the scientific literature to fully assess these risks, but their numbers are growing.

Over the years, and through different scales of groundwater monitoring studies we performed in the Barnett shale of north Texas (2,3), the Eagle Ford in south Texas (4,5), and the Permian basin in west Texas (6), we became a point of contact for various concerned citizens. Requests came from within some of the study areas where we were already working, as well from outside. In a number of cases, landowners believed they were being poisoned in their close proximity to oil and gas extraction activities.

While it was not feasible to respond to every request for special or additional analysis throughout the years, we were able to perform some independent assessments of 19 different anecdotal claims of groundwater contamination in Texas, Louisiana, and Pennsylvania. At this point, our menu of test methods has become pretty comprehensive, and it is not financially feasible for us to throw the kitchen sink at every sample. 

Probably one of the most important aspects that came out of this work was the conception of a rationale decision tree for ordering increased levels of testing, depending on initially what is perceived to be the problem (human health issues, proximity issues, or unusual water characteristics, such as effervescence or smell). From appropriate starting points, and based on initial results of tests, additional measurements can be ordered as needed. Of the 19 different cases, we sampled 36 different private wells; in some cases, wells were tested multiple times over extended time periods. 

We think that this type of rationale guidance can help aid citizen science efforts. It can provide those who are concerned about some aspect of their water, or health as a result of interacting with said water, a place to start in terms of types of measurements that can be pursued.

The study was a challenge to get published because we had very little control of the overall experimental design, beyond how to take reliable samples and make reliable measurements. A high natural variation in the quality of water from different aquifers already exists. Geology and different unconventional extraction technologies also vary significantly. Each situation was assessed objectively and to the degree possible, as it related to access and available resources. Ultimately, we acknowledge that small samples sizes are subject to higher variability, but we have been able to provide some highly valuable analyses for a significant number of individuals that they would not have otherwise.

Of the 36 water wells sampled in our study, only 5 showed any potential of contamination from unconventional oil and gas extraction activities. Scientific determinations do not always align with personal perceptions, but this insight does bring peace of mind, and the measurements themselves form a compilation of evidence upon which sound conclusions can begin to be drawn.

Of course, it is important to give due diligence to situations where some potential problem may exist, and it is feasible to offer help. We were happy to be in the position to help with these cases.

We are also very interested in championing a more intentional dialogue between proponents of and those against unconventional oil and gas extraction. It is often lonely in the middle ground between the two, but we have been successful promoting conversations of this type in the past. In October, 2018, we organized the Responsible Shale Energy Extraction (RSEE) symposium at U.T. Arlington. This year, from April 23rd – 25th, 2020 in Dallas, TX, RSEE will be subsumed into a larger EarthXEnergy conference.  The conference will span advances and state-of-the-art in environmental stewardship for renewable and non-renewable energy modalities.  Engaging keynote speakers and informative panel discussions will highlight non-renewable energy modalities on Thursday, and transition through Friday to cover nuclear energy and carbon capture technologies, until Saturday, which is dedicated to renewable energy. Check https://earthx.org/conference/earthxenergy/ in the upcoming weeks for a detailed schedule.

References

  1. Z.L. Hildenbrand, D. D. Carlton Jr., A.P. Wicker, S. Habib, P.S. Granados, and K.A. Schug, Sci. Tot. Environ.713, 136618 (2020).
  2. B.E. Fontenot, L.R. Hunt, Z.L. Hildenbrand, D.D. Carlton Jr., H. Oka, J.L. Walton, D. Hopkins, A. Osorio, B. Bjorndal, Q. Hu, and K.A. Schug, Environ. Sci. Technol.47, 10032–10040 (2013).
  3. Z.L. Hildenbrand, D.D. Carlton Jr., B.E. Fontenot, J.M. Meik, J. Walton, J.T. Taylor, J.B. Thacker, S. Korlie, C.P. Shelor, D. Henderson, A.F. Kadjo, C.E. Roelke, P. Hudak, T. Burton, H.S. Rifai, and K.A. Schug, Environ. Sci. Technol.49, 8254–8262 (2015).
  4. P. Stigler-Granados, Z.L. Hildenbrand, C. Mata, S. Habib, M. Martin, D.D. Carlton Jr., I.C. Santos, K.A. Schug, and L. Fulton, Water11, 1633 (2019).
  5. I.C. Santos, M.S. Martin, M.L. Reyes, D.D. Carlton Jr., P. Stigler-Granados, M.A. Valerio, K.W. Whitworth, Z.L.; Hildenbrand, and K.A. Schug, Sci. Tot. Environ.618, 165–173 (2018).
  6. Z.L. Hildenbrand, D.D. Carlton Jr., B.E. Fontenot, J.M. Meik, J. Walton, J.B. Thacker, S. Korlie, C.P. Shelor, A.F. Kadjo, A. Clark, S. Usenko, J. Hamilton, P. Mach, G. Verbeck IV, P. Hudak, and K.A. Schug, Sci. Tot. Environ.562, 906–913 (2016).

Kevin A. Schug is a Full Professor and Shimadzu Distinguished Professor of Analytical Chemistry in the Department of Chemistry & Biochemistry at The University of Texas (UT) at Arlington. He joined the faculty at UT Arlington in 2005 after completing a Ph.D. in Chemistry at Virginia Tech under the direction of Prof. Harold M. McNair and a post-doctoral fellowship at the University of Vienna under Prof. Wolfgang Lindner. Research in the Schug group spans fundamental and applied areas of separation science and mass spectrometry. Schug was named the LCGC Emerging Leader in Chromatography in 2009 and the 2012 American Chemical Society Division of Analytical Chemistry Young Investigator in Separation Science. He is a fellow of both the U.T. Arlington and U.T. System-Wide Academies of Distinguished Teachers.