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University to Study Water Wells Contaminated by Methane

Temple University announced Wednesday that three faculty members will investigate the source of methane gas that has contaminated water wells near Marcellus Shale drilling sites in Susquehanna County, PA, and will also study how the debate over hydraulic fracturing (fracking) is affecting public policy.

According to Temple, the three-member panel is to be led by environmental engineering professor Michel Boufadel. The other researchers will be Michele Masucci, associate professor and chair of geography and urban studies, and Nicholas Davatzes, assistant professor of earth and environmental science.

The study is being funded through a one-year, $66,000 grant from the William Penn Foundation.

Temple's planned foray into determining the source of the methane gas follows that of Duke University, which conducted a controversial study and released its results in May (see Shale Daily, May 11). Wednesday's announcement also referenced the Duke study, which blamed fracking for contaminating "at least some" of the water wells it studied in Bradford and Susquehanna counties.

Former and current secretaries of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) have condemned the Duke study as "biased science," and questioned the university's credibility for not sharing its data and sample locations with the DEP (see Shale Daily, June 8). The DEP announced that it had launched an investigation of water wells contaminated by methane in Lycoming County in June (see Shale Daily, June 20).

Boufadel told NGI's Shale Daily that his group would share its data and findings with everyone, including the natural gas industry, the government and environmental groups. He did not say whether he believed the Duke study was based on sound science or if Duke should share its data.

"Our investigation [will be] mechanistic, intended to figure our the likely source of methane in people's wells in fracking areas," Boufadel said Thursday. "We will explore the upwelling of gas from the Marcellus Shale formation along with the displacement of gas due to the drilling activity itself, bad cement, connection between aquifers, et cetera."

As part of Wednesday's announcement, Boufadel added, "We know there are environmental concerns about the Marcellus Shale and there have been some accidents related to the drilling. There has been a lot of hype about this issue and sometimes it is difficult to decipher what is fact-based and what is opinion."

Boufadel said fracking could be responsible for contaminating the water wells. He said that if the methane originated in the upper formations of the Marcellus Shale it could have migrated to the water wells through improper drilling or casing techniques. But he indicated that methane originating from deeper formations was a more serious problem, with Temple stating, "The entire hydrofracking process could be considered hazardous and would need to be stopped or dramatically modified."

Masucci, a social scientist, also plans to study how fracking in the Marcellus Shale play is affecting public policy.

"Environmental research is inherently multi-disciplinary," Boufadel said. "The challenges are not only technical or technological, but socio-political as well."

Temple also plans to organize a fall symposium on Marcellus Shale.

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