This week was chock full of big news about the health and environmental impacts of fracking in Pennsylvania.

Three major studies came out and here’s what we learned:

  1. The federal government found zero evidence that salty, chemical-filled water used for fracking contaminated drinking water at a natural gas drilling site in western Pennsylvania.

  2. Yale University and University of Washington researchers found people in western Pennsylvania living close to natural gas wells were twice as likely to report health problems as people living farther away from the wells.

  3. Researchers from five universities published a study found that it wasn’t the actual process of hydraulic fracturing that caused cases of contaminated groundwater in Pennsylvania and Texas, but faulty well integrity in natural gas wells.

The federal study (number one above) by the Department of Energy is a big deal for a couple of reasons:

  1. It was the first time independent monitoring of fracking at a drilling site was allowed by a drilling company that the department then continued to monitor for 18 months.

  2. It shows that frack fluid used to break shale stayed about 5,000 feet below drinking water at the well sites examined, according to the Associated Press.

More from the AP:

Scientists used tracer fluids, seismic monitoring and other tests to look for problems, and created the most detailed public report to date about how fracking affects adjacent rock structures.

But the Energy Department report is far from the last word on the subject. The department monitored six wells at one site, but oil or gas drilling at other locations around the nation could show different results because of variations in geology or drilling practices. Environmentalists and regulators have also documented cases in which surface spills of chemicals or wastewater damaged drinking water supplies.

The Yale and University of Washington study had public health researchers knocking on the doors of 180 randomly selected homes in Washington County, where they surveyed the health of 492 adults and children. They found that people living less than one kilometer (just over a half mile) away from fracking sites were more likely to have health problems, including skin rashes and respiratory issues, than people living two kilometers or more away.

The Marcellus Shale Coalition, the leading gas-industry group in Pennsylvania, criticized the study in several news outlets as being biased because researchers collaborated with the Southwestern Pennsylvania Environmental Health Project, which the Coalition has accused of being against the gas industry. The project is based in Washington County and studies health and environmental impacts from shale drilling in Pennsylvania.

The study’s researchers called for further research into health effects from shale gas drilling.

The study from five universities (Duke, Ohio State, Stanford, Dartmouth and the University of Rochester) looked at 133 water wells with high levels in methane in Pennsylvania and Texas and ultimately concluded that it was in some cases shoddy well casings that led to water contamination, not the actual process of fracking.

One of the study’s authors told StateImpact Pennsylvania that the findings were a mix of good and bad news.

“The relatively good news is that the hydraulic fracturing process is not actually releasing the methane,” [said lead author Thomas Darrah of Ohio State University.] “Instead, it’s actually problems along the well and well integrity that are allowing some gas to leak out into the shall aquifer.”

StateImpact PA points out in the article that there’s been confusion about water quality and natural gas extraction because fracking has become a “catchall” term for the entire drilling process, when in reality it’s just one part of it.

Reach Natasha Khan at 412-315-0261 or Follow her on Twitter @khantasha.


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Natasha is PublicSource's creative director. She runs the organizations visuals team, edits and produces interactive graphics, data visualizations and web packages for PublicSource. She manages the website...