Project SWIFT researches effect of hydrofracking on water
With hydrofracking a looming possibility in New York, a group of Syracuse University professors has created a project to assess the effects of hydrofracking on the quality of drinking water.
“In New York state, there’s been a great deal of resistance to high-volume hydrofracking,” said Donald Siegel, an earth sciences professor and hydrologist specialist. “Hydrofracking seeks to tap into what are known as unconventional gas reserves.”
Associate professors of earth science Gregory Hoke and Laura Lautz created Project SWIFT — Shale-Water Interaction Forensic Tools — in spring 2012 in response to the high possibility of hydrofracking in New York.
Siegel and Zunli Lu, an assistant earth science professor, will both play a key role in the analysis portion of the project.
One of Project SWIFT’s main goals is to learn more about the chemistry of the area’s supply of drinking water before tapping into these gas reserves, Siegel said.
“We are in a unique position because New York state has not yet engaged in hydrofracking, allowing us to obtain pre-fracking data,” he said.
Siegel said he will be actively involved in figuring out which combinations of chemicals in the water are present as a result of fluids related to hydraulic fracturing.
According to a Project SWIFT presentation report, three categories will be analyzed: nutrients and fluorescence, dissolved minerals and trace elements.
“We are coming up with unique diagnostic tools that would be able to fingerprint these different types of contaminants,” Siegel said. “We are looking at ways for hydraulic fracturing to be unequivocally identified from other potential sources of contamination.”
Many of the gas reserves are located about a mile deep in a layer of low-permeability source rock called shale. During the hydrofracking process, water and chemicals are pumped at high pressure to retrieve the trapped gas, Siegel said.
While there are several potential problems associated with hydrofracking, the biggest one stems from potential groundwater contamination.
“You can get fluids coming back out of the well,” Siegel said. “These fluids are very salty and contain chemicals that can pollute drinking water.”
The project involves collecting samples from drinking wells in the southern-tier section of New York, which includes Allegany, Broome, Chemung, Steuben and Tioga counties, Siegel said.
Currently, project participants are analyzing the data they have collected and plan to make the information available on the project’s website when completed, said Natalie Teale, a senior assisting on the project.
The southern tier of New York has heavy shale gas deposits, making it an area likely to undergo hydrofracking in the future, Teale said.
“Part of the Marcellus Formation lies in the southern tier,” she said. “This is why the area is most vulnerable to fracking.”
In order to collect data, residents of the southern tier were contacted and informed of the project. Students assisting in the project — like Max Gade, a graduate student in the earth science department — drove to the region this summer to retrieve samples.
After another student selected wells to collect samples from and reached out to well owners, Gade traveled to the wells and collected the samples, he said in an email.
Said Gade: “We would drive a lot between samplings, so we had some really long days, but it was very rewarding.”
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