High Schoolers Dig into Fracking

October 8, 2012
Mountain Ridge High School students

Students and scientists monitor town’s drinking water as Maryland considers natural gas drilling


Frostburg, a college town tucked into Maryland’s Allegheny Mountains, is no contender for the state’s biggest metropolis. But the town’s 9,000 residents are dealing with a big issue: natural gas drilling. In less than two years, a host of drilling companies may flood into the region to extract this fossil fuel using a technique known as fracking. It’s a process that could bring economic gains for the town but may also carry consequences for the health of local streams and of the broader ecosystem that drains into the Chesapeake Bay.

A group of high school students in Frostburg, however, have responded to those potential changes in a creative way -- by doing research.

Their teacher, Thomas Kozikowski, has been teaching environmental science at Mountain Ridge High School in Frostburg for eight years. Originally from Toms River, New Jersey, he’s adapted to the town’s low-key vibe, biking to school every weekday. But he also knows that his quiet cycling routes take him right over a potential gold mine for energy firms -- the Marcellus Shale. That’s a wide geologic formation made of old sand and clay deposits that stretches from New York south into Kentucky and underlies parts of Western Maryland. Trapped inside that formation is a bounty of natural gas -- a fuel comprised mostly of methane -- which had gone untapped for decades. 

Now, however, new technology has made it possible to reach those deep reserves. Using a method called hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, drilling companies have already started doing just that to the north of Frostburg in Pennsylvania and to the south in West Virginia. Here’s how it works: gas companies drill thousands of feet into the shale then inject thousands of gallons of fluids comprised mostly of water into the bore holes at very high pressures to fracture the underlying rock. The process frees the methane trapped inside. Many states have embraced the practice since it brings in revenue, and many argue that fracking may help the United States achieve energy independence. As a bonus, the fuel burns cleaner than petroleum. But Maryland hasn’t yet jumped on board. 

That’s because fracking also presents possible environmental downsides, as Martin O’Malley, Maryland’s governor, emphasized in June 2011 when he announced a three-year moratorium on fracking -- an industry that had yet to even ramp up in the state. The governor called for studies of the safety and environmental and economic impacts of the industry. 

The concern stems from the components mixed into fracking fluids. While the exact recipes for these liquids are closely guarded trade secrets, many contain small amounts of certain substances that could harm human health. That includes benzene, a known carcinogen. Well operators syphon back up much of the fluids they force into the shale. But environmental groups have raised concerns that this liquid, which picks up heavy concentrations of salts in the earth, could spill during the collection process or later when it’s being stored or transported.

Still, scientists say, just how often such contamination happens isn’t clear. It’s not easy to inspect a drinking water well laced with salts or other unwanted substances and identify the fingerprints of a specific pollution source. 

So Kozikowski saw an opportunity for his students to learn and contribute to research that might help their own community. He says he’s seen the uncertainty over fracking’s risks drive bitter battles between environmental groups and energy firms in other towns. He didn’t want the same thing to happen to Frostburg. “I don’t want my town and my water supply to be one of these sources of confusion,” he says. “I want to know what’s going on in the water.” His students did, too. For two school years, they’ve been studying what science can -- and also can’t -- say about the risks associated with fracking. It’s a goal that brought the teacher into contact with Dr. Johan Schijf. 

Sampling Streams

Schijf is a scientist who studies trace metals at the Chesapeake Biological Laboratory in Solomons, Maryland, part of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science (UMCES). He met Kozikowski almost by accident at a meeting held this February by the state government to discuss fracking safety. Both soon realized that they were interested in the same three elements: strontium, barium, and bromine -- or, more specifically, a type of compound containing bromine called a bromide. 

All three elements are present to some degree in fracking fluid as it’s being sucked up to the surface, Schijf says. While they’re not harmful at the levels expected in a fracking spill, they could be the sort of drilling fingerprint scientists have been looking for. In other words, if you spot unusually high levels of these elements in your local stream, it’s a clue that your water could be contaminated by other constituents in spilled fracking fluids. 

But what makes a particularly high level? For bromide, that’s an easy question since this element rarely pops up in streams or in groundwater. Strontium and barium, however, are trickier. Both fluctuate naturally in most waterways, jumping up during some seasons and dropping off during others -- and that flux varies depending on the waterway in question. Identifying a stream’s background levels of strontium and barium takes a little legwork, Schijf says. Researchers need to trek out to aquifers and reservoirs before fracking even begins, to collect and analyze water samples, creating a log of the elements they find. And they have to do that for a long time. The end goal is what scientists call a baseline, a starting point they can refer to once drilling starts.

Ultimately, it’s unclear to what extent fracking fluids could influence the ecology of the Chesapeake Bay or its tributaries -- if at all, says Schijf. After all, spills would likely get diluted as they trickled from Frostburg to the estuary. But such a baseline will be important for tracking the local health of the region’s smaller waterways.

Both Schijf and his new teacher acquaintance recognized that the state’s moratorium had given them a valuable opportunity: they now had time to conduct some of that baseline research. “A lot of the other states where fracking is already ongoing never had an opportunity to do that,” Schijf says. But the team also had to work fast. And they needed someone to do the legwork. So Schijf soon drove west to Frostburg and gave Kozikowski’s high schoolers a lesson in how to collect water samples properly. It takes a bit of finesse: the students had to learn how to suck up water samples using a syringe, then filter that fluid into an airtight vial.

And that’s exactly what Kozikowski’s students did from February to August, each month without fail. They regularly sampled six sites around Frostburg, including two tributaries that feed into the town’s main reservoir and a station that pumps freshwater from the local aquifer to a nearby treatment plant. Then the students mailed their samples off to Schijf, who analyzed their contents. The team got good results, too. Strontium levels in the town reservoir, for instance, fluctuated between 30 parts per billion and 42 parts per billion, a normal variation in this body of water. Kozikowski, additionally, received funding from an outside group to continue his work, although he’ll be mailing his samples off to a different lab from now on. 

Both Schijf and Kozikowski make it clear that they’re not campaigning for or against fracking in Frostburg -- they just want to make sure that if it is done it’s done as carefully as possible and that town’s residents get all the information they need to make decisions. For his part, Schijf hopes the town’s data might be useful to other communities in Western Maryland grappling with the same issues. 

Kozikowski’s students have appreciated the chance to do real-world research that matters to their community, rather than just another lab experiment. “This made the project so much more interesting and fun because instead of just researching other people’s data or interpreting results, my class got to see what the methods used for sample collection actually were,” says Georgia Grace Edwards, one of Kozikowski’s students. 

Beyond Frostburg

Brigid Kenney, a senior policy advisor for the Maryland Department of the Environment, agrees that the data collected by volunteers could be an important part of preparing for the potential natural gas boom here at home -- if the moratorium is, indeed, lifted in 2014. But the Frostburg project is small in scale, and the state of Maryland hasn’t yet determined where it would find resources to pay for a broader monitoring campaign. 

In the meantime, a few efforts like Kozikowski’s have begun to emerge in Western Maryland. The Maryland Department of Natural Resources has, for instance, organized a volunteer effort to encourage locals to regularly sample their own waterways at more than 50 sites across Garrett County. They’ll be testing those waterways for, among other things, natural fluctuations in saltiness -- salts, after all, could spike in the event of a fracking-related spill. The agency has posted results from that effort, which has been under way for about a year, on its web page: Stream Monitoring in the Marcellus Shale Region.

Scientists have approached the question of fracking close to home in other ways, too. That includes providing the state with good recommendations. Keith Eshleman, a hydrologist at the UMCES Appalachian Laboratory, also in Frostburg, and several colleagues are working on a report to advise the state on how natural gas drilling should be done here. The researchers will compare and contrast how other states regulate their own fracking, looking for practices that would fit well in Maryland. The team expects to release its recommendations, which were called for by the original moratorium order and will be published by the Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE), later this year. For more about hydraulic fracturing in Maryland, see MDE’s fact sheet on the subject. 

Kenney, for one, is glad to see the state moving cautiously. “The Governor set a very wise course for us in having us look before we leap,” she says. And, thanks to Kozikowski’s students, Frostburg will be better prepared for that leap if it comes.

-- Daniel Strain

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