by Thom Kilburn
Carroll County is a quaint region tucked beneath the rolling foothills of Appalachia. With a population of just under 29,000 people, it is one of the smallest counties in eastern Ohio. Carroll County is teeming with cozy farmsteads, a couple of wineries, a few historic museums and a plethora of mom and pop shops. In a sense, it’s the epitome of a rural Ohio county.
But over the next few years, the rustic residents of Carroll County will see a dramatic change in its lush countryside and possibly its drinking water.
Hydraulic fracturing, an industrial natural gas extraction technique, has begun to permeate the region and environmental concerns are growing. In Carroll County, 327 permits have been approved and 236 fracking wells have been drilled.
Commonly referred to as fracking, this extraction method has existed since Stanolind Oil first introduced it in 1949 to increase production in both oil and gas wells. Currently, this industry is being used extensively to meet rising natural gas demands.
The process entails pumping a fracturing fluid, which contains sand, chemicals, and millions of gallons of water, into a wellbore with immense pressure to create microfractures underground. Granules of sand in the fluid prop the fractures open, allowing the natural gas to flow into the well and then rise to the surface.
Concerns over this technique pivot on a number of economic and environmental issues. Advocates of fracking primarily claim that it can endow gas-rich regions with an exorbitant economic stimulus. Opponents assert that this extraction technique can contaminate aquifers and domestic wells or excrete a smorgasbord of toxic wastes into regional ecosystems. Other processes related to fracking, such as wastewater injection, have been linked to earthquakes.
Each one of these concerns is beginning to hit home. Areas throughout eastern Ohio, like Carroll County, sit atop the Utica and Marcellus shale formations, making this region an underground energy cornucopia that is prime real estate for fracking.
David Dominic, Ph.D., professor of earth and environmental sciences at Wright State University, said that one of the main controversies concerning fracking—and not just in eastern Ohio, but throughout most states sitting atop shale formations—is the disposal of large volumes of wastewater.
“Fracking takes over a million gallons of water per well. Once pumped into the ground, that water is pumped back out to release the natural gas—and that water comes back highly contaminated,” said Dominic.
“This flowback contains the numerous chemicals that are added to the water to aid the fracturing but also elements from the fracked formation. That wastewater has to be disposed of and one way to do that is to inject it into wells designed for this purpose,” he said.
Most injection wells that are used to dispose of fracking waste mixtures are regulated by the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). However, correlations have still been made between water disposal and the contamination of surrounding aquifers and other water sources.
Although the EPA issued a 2004 report concluding there is very little risk that fracking can contaminate drinking water, there are some documented contamination incidents. For example, in August 2006, drilling fluids and methane were detected emerging from a hillside in Clark County, Wyoming, from a gas well surrounded by a rural housing development. Ultimately 8 million cubic feet of methane were released, according to the 17 November 2006 Casper Star-Tribune. Subsequent tests showed contamination of shallow groundwater with hydrocarbon compounds.
Other states’ fracking, drilling and waste disposal policies and practices are beginning to have a hand in Ohio’s ecology. Pennsylvania exists as a gleaming example—as it currently stands, it is the primary location for massive fracking initiatives because of the excess of underground natural gas.
“Much of Pennsylvania’s wastewater from fracking is trucked to Ohio and is injected into the ground for disposal,” he said. “For Pennsylvania, it is simply closer and more convenient to transport wastewater into Ohio.”
Thus, chemicals such as hydrochloric acid, polyacrylamide, ethylene glycol, guar gum, isopropanol, citric acid, borate salts, and a litany of other compounds have the potential to wind up in aquifers. However, every fracking company puts their own special twist on the composition of the fracking mixtures used. Mixtures can also vary depending upon the geological terrain being exploited.
“In my mind, the handling of the chemicals at the surface is a greater danger than injecting them deep into the ground,” said Dominic. “For the most part, those chemicals go down [into the ground] and then come back out. Obviously some of what is injected remains in the formation, but that is relatively deep compared to most aquifers.”
According to Dominic, those chemicals migrating from the shale formation into aquifers is not as likely as the aquifers being infiltrated and contaminated from chemicals that were spilled on the surface.
A team of researchers from the University of Cincinnati spent the past year periodically testing groundwater wells in Carroll County to determine the detriment, if any, fracking had on the region. Currently, they are analyzing samples for concentrations of methane as well as hydrocarbons and salt.
They examined changes to baseline concentrations over time, changes that may result from fracking. Conclusions have not been made, but the research team from the University of Cincinnati is set to continue measuring compounds as fracking progresses in the Carroll County region.
Dominic stressed the importance of the types of initiatives like the one taken by the team of researchers from UC—taking baseline samples of water sources near future fracking sites, then taking samples of the same water after the fracking takes place.
“This process can help to identify the possible relationship between fracking and the chemical contamination of water sources,” said Dominic.
Furthermore, a report from the Energy Institute of the University Texas at Austin states that the lack of baseline studies in areas of shale gas development makes it difficult to evaluate the long-term cumulative effects and risks associated with hydraulic fracturing.
“There are very few instances in which baseline studies have been done before drilling and fracking,” said Dominic. “This is unfortunate because it’s one of the best ways to resolve controversies that emerge in areas of fracking.”
Dominic claims that if the process of before-and-after monitoring were mandated by organizations like the EPA, all parties could benefit—including communities throughout rural eastern Ohio.