Accounting Cumulative Impacts of Highly Industrialized Infrastructure

Robinson and Smith Townships, Pennsylvania

Featured image for the project, Accounting Cumulative Impacts of Highly Industrialized Infrastructure

Photo Courtesy of Garth Lenz, iLCP and EIP


Robinson and Smith Townships, located in Washington County, Pennsylvania, are close knit, idyllic, rural and agricultural communities. In recent years, shale gas extraction has boomed in Washington County, proving a divisive issue among residents and straining relationships between neighbors, as industry changes the landscape of communities with the development of wells, pipelines, processing plants, and compressor stations. As public health concerns mount, residents are looking for expertise to aid with understanding the cumulative air quality implications of hydraulic fracturing operations and associated industrial infrastructure development clustered in these rural communities.

This challenge will focus on the less studied equipment and operations that lack meaningful, transparent permitting and/or do not provide complete monitoring, in particular pigging operations, compressor stations and processing plants, and the flaring that accompanies such operations. Residents want to understand how the equipment is intended to function, how much equipment and operations are necessary, and what planned releases of contaminants accompany each portion of the operations. Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are the contaminants of concern, particularly benzene, methane and formaldehyde.

Robinson Township officials originally challenged the Act 13 regulations that stifled municipalities’ long established zoning authority with regard to the new shale gas industry in Pennsylvania.  A Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruling in December of 2013, reaffirmed local zoning authority, however, this legal decision angered some lease holders, fearing their opportunities to reap the benefits of potential shale gas royalties.  As a result, the Robinson Township officials responsible for initiating the landmark Robinson Township v Commonwealth of Pennsylvania challenge to Pennsylvania’s Act 13 were voted out of office and replaced with decision-makers sympathetic to the oil and gas industry, including some leaseholders.  As one of the centers of oil and gas extraction in Western Pennsylvania, residents in Robinson and Smith Townships, Washington County are concerned about the cumulative impacts of industrial operations, particularly air quality implications, as the regulatory oversight is lacking in this regard.

Background on the Robinson Township v Commonwealth of PA ruling:

A literature review is requested prior to project start to anticipate specific compounds to monitor. Of interest to the local residents would be canister testing, FLIR camera imaging and/or other equivalent monitoring that can provide scientific data detailing what emissions are being released from the oil and gas operations near their homes, farms and school.  It is the citizen team’s hope that Albert Presto will coordinate access or ownership of monitoring equipment, including the ability to set up, maintenance of the equipment, as well as gathering of and analysis of data.

About the Community

Community Leads

Cathy Lodge is a 1991 graduate of the University of Pittsburgh with a Bachelor’s degree in Environmental Science.  She has always been interested in issues involving the environment. Living in a small rural town in Washington County PA, Cathy has a front row seat to the oil and gas boom.  She actively encourage local and state regulatory agencies to consider the scientific data and cumulative health impacts of industry and to take steps to protect the environment and the citizens.


Lisa Graves Marcucci is Pennsylvania Coordinator, Community Outreach with the Environmental Integrity Project (EIP).  Since joining EIP in 2009, her efforts to protect human health from power plant and oil and gas pollution have grown from the community to the regional and national level. Lisa has conducted extensive reviews of permit files for EIP, helped to identify violations, and organized citizen testimony at numerous public hearings before local, state and national agencies. Lisa was invited to speak before the National Academy of Sciences in October of 2004 in Washington, D.C., advocating for more effective regulation of coal combustion waste disposal.  Lisa is a life-long resident of Pittsburgh’s Monongahela Valley and is a graduate of Duquesne University.

Scientific Lead

Albert Presto is an Assistant Research Professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering and a member of Carnegie Mellon University’s Center for Atmospheric Particle Studies. Albert’s research focuses on pollutant emissions from energy extraction and consumption and the subsequent atmospheric transformations that these emissions undergo. He investigates the contributions of primary and secondary pollution with ambient measurements, laboratory experiments, source testing of pollution sources, and atmospheric models. This multi-pronged and multi-disciplinary approach allows for a holistic view of pollutant emissions and transformations in the atmosphere.



Cathy “Cat” Lodge will serve as the primary point of contact. She will be supported by other partners and neighbors and by the Environmental Integrity Project (EIP). Cat will be the interface with the community for monitoring sites, engaging with other community members. The community is self-taught, aware, has developed maps, acquired photos and detailed knowledge of area, location of facilities, and the like. If air monitoring is possible, there are property owners willing to place monitors abutting or adjacent to various types of facilities.


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.

All updates for this project

Collaborating Organization(s)

This project is part of one of Thriving Earths’ 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.