Identifying Contaminants in Drinking Water

Cambridge, Ohio

Featured image for the project, Identifying Contaminants in Drinking Water

Photo Courtesy of Leatra Harper

Results

The Team

 

The Initial Challenge

The Wills Creek area in Guernsey County, Ohio, has been a hotbed for hydraulic fracturing (fracking) and unconventional gas development. With the growth of the industry comes growing concerns about water quality and quantity. Contamination in surface waters is an ever-present risk and the associated withdrawal of water from rivers and streams could exacerbate water quality issues. This project aimed to examine streams, rivers, and lakes in the area to determine what contaminants, if any, are present and to communicate this information to local stakeholders. A secondary focus is to quantify the amount of water removed from the watershed and determine if this has a negative effect on flow.

 

The Methods

The team used multiple methods to identify potential contaminants in surface waters around Cambridge, Ohio. Spiese developed a version of a passive sampler to extract hydrophobic contaminants. The contents of the sampler were then concentrated and analyzed by GC-FID and GC-MS to identify aromatic compounds (benzene, toluene, ethyl benzene, and xylenes). Data from FracTracker and USGS were used to assess risks of excessive water withdrawals due to fracking. Harper held public meetings to educate local stakeholders about fracking-related issues.

The team relied on Harper’s non-profit to fund the development and deployment of the passive samplers. Water quantity data are publicly available. Harper also funded the public meetings. Additional external funding would have accelerated progress.

The team met as needed via phone and in person, with four sampling days planned in the two summers the project was active. Time commitment varied over the course of the project, with some months requiring heavy investment and some requiring little to no investment on the scientific side.

 

The Results

Through this project the team built and delivered the following:

• Three grant proposals
• Passive sampler designed and tested
• Water quantity data acquired and analyzed
• Public meetings

The development of the passive sampler, if propagated, will enable low-cost long-term monitoring of surface waters by entities with the needed skills and instrumentation. Work on water quantity, while on-going, is pointing to a new potential harm and focus for research.

 

Reflections

Some things that contributed to this team’s success include:

• Having a funded partner
• Existing connections with other researchers
• Spiese being at a primarily undergraduate institution (PUI) – this enabled Spiese to be able to bring in many undergraduate researchers to support this work without needing to have funding specifically for this project.

If they were to do this project again, the team would:

• Set more realistic timelines & goals
• Have a concrete funding stream

For those pursuing a community science partnership, the team recommends acknowledging up front that the pace of the work may be much slower than anticipated. Find an energetic partner and be ready for a lower yield of results in the time allotted.

Description

The Wills Creek region of Guernsey County is located in the rolling hills of the Appalachian region in Southeast Ohio.  The county is sparsely populated with approximately 40,000 residents. The medium-sized city of Cambridge, Ohio is the area’s largest population center with approximately 10,000 residents. Employment is diverse. The most common industries in 2015 were: Production occupations (17%), Transportation occupations (11%), Sales and related occupation (11%), Management occupations (8%), Construction and extraction occupations (8%), Material moving occupations (6%), and Food preparation and serving related occupations (6%).

 

Additionally, Guernsey County has a history of fossil fuel development hosts important industries of agriculture and tourism in the region. The Wills Creek region of Guernsey county has been significantly impacted by Unconventional Oil and Gas Development (UCOG), including not only the wells drilled to fracture for oil, wet gases and unconventional natural gas, but numerous injection wells and frack waste processing facilities.

 

The water supply for Cambridge and most of Guernsey County comes from Wills Creek Reservoir.  Seneca Lake, also created by Wills Creek by a dam under the jurisdiction of the US Army Corps of Engineers, is a secondary source of drinking water for the reservoir.  Seneca Lake also provides significant tourism, recreation and ecological benefits at the regional, state and local level.

 

A study is needed to determine if contaminant exceedances in local drinking water are associated with the growth of the hydrological fracturing industry and its associated waste processing and disposal facilities in the region. This includes chemical analyses of in-stream water near drinking water intakes, as well as upstream from these intakes and processing facilities, to understand the impact of surrounding oil and gas operations on drinking water sources.

 

Chris Spiese will primarily conduct a watershed study in the field, identify contaminants of concern entering and exiting the public water works, and to then sample upstream of drinking water intakes (and upstream and downstream of suspected sources of those contaminants) to identify potentially contaminating source facilities.

Contact

Leatra Harper, Managing Director of FreshWater Accountability Project, will serve as the Community Lead for this project. Lea was a property owner for ten years in Guernsey County, and began a small non-profit in 2011 to provide information and resources to protect freshwater in the region due to the water-intensive needs of the UCOG industry.

Updates

Empowering Communities Affected by Fracking

Residents gain knowledge and credibility in quest to understand the effects of unconventional oil and gas development

 

Hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” is a topic that has divided residents across many U.S. communities over the past decade. Fear is often at the heart of these divisions—fear that oil and gas development activities will disrupt residents’ lives, pollute their environment and threaten their health. Perhaps greatest of all is the fear that these impacts will occur without anyone documenting them or holding responsible parties to account.

In 2017, Thriving Earth Exchange launched a cohort of projects designed to address community concerns over hydraulic fracturing. By pairing community members with scientists experienced in environmental assessment, the projects aimed to help communities address their fears by equipping them with the tools and knowledge to understand whether, and how, oil and gas development might affect their environment and health.

As two of the projects wrap up, participants reflect on how community-scientist collaborations can take on seemingly insurmountable problems, even helping small communities feel powerful in the face of Goliaths like major energy companies. While fracking continues to affect their lives, residents report a greater sense of empowerment and confidence in their ability to protect and improve their communities.

 

Unexpected events intensify monitoring needs in Barnesville, Ohio

Jill Hunkler, community lead for the project in Barnesville, Ohio, had serious concerns about the expanding fracking industry around her town. “Finding out that, on average, it takes 11 million gallons of water to frack one well, and that [the water] is then permanently contaminated with toxic chemicals, was terrifying,” she says. “I became a leader to protect my family, community, and land, air, and water that is so valued and loved.”

The community was matched with John Stolz, Ph.D., Director of the Center for Environmental Research and Education at Duquesne University. Early on, the team identified water quality as a primary concern. They decided that Hunkler, an experienced local activist and community organizer, would spearhead a public education campaign and lead community forums, while Stolz would help the community analyze water samples to identify potential fracking-related contaminants.

Hunkler’s concern about water quality dates back to 2016, when thousands of gallons of toxic fracking fluid spilled into a local reservoir, significantly impacting local water quality. In addition, a more recent “blowout” at a fracking well created a toxic plume that lasted nearly three weeks. In the face of these events, testing for contaminants in local water bodies became more important than mere monitoring.

Working with an expert to gather on-the-ground data boosted residents’ confidence to approach local and state officials about their concerns. In addition, they engaged with social media and news outlets to reach a wider audience, even giving then-gubernatorial candidate Dennis Kucinich a tour of several fracking sites.

“Dr. Stolz brought a new level of credibility and justification for my continued work on these issues,” Hunkler says. “Citizens cannot rely on regulatory agencies to protect them. They must find programs like Thriving Earth Exchange, who will partner them with a scientist.”

 

Devising a low-cost, long-term water monitoring tool in Cambridge, Ohio

Residents of Cambridge, Ohio were similarly concerned about how hydraulic fracturing might harm the quality and quantity of their water supply. Leatra Harper, Managing Director of FreshWater Accountability Project teamed up with Chris Spiese, Ph.D., of Ohio Northern University to find out if the community’s fears were warranted.

The team devised several methods to test for contaminants in surface waters around Wills Creek, which is near several fracking sites and supplies most of the county’s water. At community meetings, Harper and Spiese shared the findings with local stakeholders. Spiese noted that the information helped calm some residents’ “chemophobia,” but added that the data points to a need for continued water monitoring to hold the industry accountable for emissions, especially in the absence of adequate regulation.

Another important outcome of the project is the passive water sampler the team devised, which will live on after the project as a low-cost, long-term solution for monitoring water and determining the source of any contaminants. The sampler could give other communities an important tool for monitoring their water quality, as well.

Participants report that the project was more work than they had anticipated, but well worth the effort. “We had to learn how to balance all of the other demands on our time outside of the project, as well as learn not to compare ourselves to the other groups working in the same area,” Spiese says.

Although the Thriving Earth Exchange project has ended, team members continue the effort, especially in the area of water quantity, which is more complex to assess than water quality. They are working to secure funding to gather more data and continue to educate local stakeholders.

Spiese advises other communities seeking to solve similar problems to communicate clearly and have realistic expectations about what can be accomplished. It is also important to let local concerns frame the projects, and to encourage local authorities to support these efforts, Hunkler      notes.

A third project in the cohort, centered around Robinson and Smith Townships, Penn., continues to collect data and engage with community members to address concerns around the environmental impacts of fracking and its associated industrial infrastructure in their area.

May 2019 Notes from the Field: Cambridge, OH

Cambridge, OH team deploys PISCES Samplers

All updates for this project

Project Team

Community Lead

Leatra Harper is a lifelong resident of Ohio and long-term environmental advocate. She holds a BS degree in Human Resources from the University of Toledo and a graduate degree in Organization Development from Bowling Green State University. She began the FreshWater Accountability Project in 2012 to advocate for water protections and community empowerment when horizontal hydraulic fracturing first came to Southeast Ohio.

Leatra and her husband, Steve, are grandparents, another important reason they advocate for clean air and water and sustainable energy solutions for the future.

 

Scientific Lead

Chris Spiese is Associate Professor at Ohio Northern University. His interests lie in the field of environmental chemistry. During graduate school, he studied volatile sulfur compound production by marine phytoplankton. In addition to that work, he is currently studying phosphorus dynamics in the Lake Erie watershed, both in the water and in the soil. Current efforts are examining the role of glyphosate in dissolved phosphorus loading in the Maumee River and monitoring water quality in various subwatersheds of the Blanchard River.

 

Collaborating Organization(s)

This project is part of one of Thriving Earth Exchange’s new cohorts.  Thriving Earth Exchange has partnered with AGU’s GeoPolicy Connect in 2017 to bring community leaders from eastern Ohio and western Pennsylvania affected by ongoing hydraulic fracturing together with scientists and policymakers. Thriving Earth Exchange is working with three local community groups to connect them with scientists who can help them better understand and cope with the effects of hydraulic fracturing.