Professor gets grant for well tests near fracking sites

Jordan Miller | Staff Photographer Stolz is a professor of environmental microbiology in Duquesne’s Bayer school.
Jordan Miller | Staff Photographer  Stolz is a professor of environmental microbiology in Duquesne’s Bayer school.
Jordan Miller | Staff Photographer
Stolz is a professor of environmental microbiology in Duquesne’s Bayer school.

Brandon Addeo | News Editor

Residents of southwest Pennsylvania can learn if their well water has been contaminated by fracking operations for free — all thanks to a Duquesne professor and his students.

John Stolz, director of Duquesne’s Center for Environmental Research and Education, received a $48,000 award from the Heinz Endowments earlier this month for his project, which he and Duquesne students have been working on since 2011.

Stolz said he and some of his students travel to homes in Allegheny, Butler, Greene and Washington Counties to find any potential contaminants in residents’ well water. So far, about 1,000 water samples have been taken and the wells of about 250 homes have been tested.

“The ultimate question is does … hydraulic fracturing pose a threat to drinking water sources?” he said.
The project began as a collaboration between scientists from the University of Pittsburgh, Carnegie Mellon University and the Carnegie Museum of Natural History. The original goal, to perform “baseline” studies on the quality in surface water sources, like streams and rivers, in Washington and Greene counties, soon expanded in its objectives.

“I was doing some public presentations and people started talking and meeting with me and telling me that their well water was getting contaminated,” Stolz said. “So I thought, well, wouldn’t it be a good idea to start not only looking at surface water, but how about groundwater?”

He said in recent years there has been an increasing number of toxic contaminants found in drinking water facilities in the area, which he said can be “attributed to the uptick in drilling activities.”

“A lot of us get our drinking [tap] water from one of the three major rivers in Pittsburgh,” Stolz said.

Southwestern Pennsylvania takes up a large portion of fracking operations in the Commonwealth. According to data from the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, of the 10,144 unconventional oil and gas wells in Pennsylvania, southwestern Pennsylvania counties contain 4,205 wells. Washington County tops the state with the highest number of wells: 1,512.

Students of Stolz have also examined groundwater quality in two county parks: Deer Lakes in Allegheny County and Cross Creek in Washington County — both of which contain drilling sites. The students found methane, a flammable substance, in the surface water of both parks, according to Stolz.

Linnea Manley, a second-year environmental science management graduate student, has worked with Stolz to test well water for about a year and a half.

Manley, who is completing a thesis on the project, said it can sometimes be hard to detect contaminants caused from fracking because water in southwestern Pennsylvania “often” contains high levels of iron and manganese, particularly in Washington and Butler Counties. Stolz said this a result of coal mining from previous decades.

She said she thinks it is “important” to be able to give residents free well water tests.

“There are some people [we see] who have never had their water tested and they’ve lived there decades,” Manley said. “It’s nice to go out and give people this free test for their water and tell them if their water is safe to be drinking. A lot of people with little kids are concerned.”

Stolz said water quality can sometimes be overlooked.

“We take it for granted. We expect water to come out of the tap, and good water to come out of the tap,” he said.

Some drilling companies are taking steps to limit environmental damage.

Cabot Oil & Gas Corporation, who operates 608 Marcellus shale wells in southwestern Pennsylvania, formed an Environment, Health and Safety team to “prevent pollution, reduce wastes and emissions, and conserve energy and other natural resources by minimizing the environmental risks associated with our operations,” according to their website.

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