As Our Week Rattles to an End

Today we had a relatively straightforward day, considering all of the challenges we faced earlier in the week. We visited two streams, both of which involved a little bit of hiking. We completed our work efficiently at both sites, and before we knew it we were heading home for the weekend.

Accessing a stream

Accessing a stream

That being said, we did encounter two things which were out of the ordinary. For one, as we were trying to catch trout in the first stream, we came across a huge salamander called a northern spring salamander. We see a lot of salamander species during our field work, but they’re usually only a couple of inches long. This one was an absolute behemoth in comparison.

Huge salamander

Huge salamander

The second encounter happened as we were hiking to the second stream. I was excited on Thursday when we found a small ring-neck snake, and we ended up coming across a snake of another variety today – though this one wasn’t quite as harmless as a ring-neck snake. This one was a timber rattlesnake, and Dr. Grant (who was leading the way) almost stepped right on top of it, but he noticed what it was just in time to stop everyone from getting in harm’s way.

Timber rattlesnake

Timber rattlesnake

I managed to snap a couple of pictures of the snake. In fact, the snake was so excited by my photography that it rattled at me to show its approval. We made a point to give the snake a huge berth and left it to bask in the sun as we continued hiking.

Other than, it was an uncomplicated (for once) and productive day for the Grant lab. We’ll be going back out into the field on Monday for more research in the Pennsylvania Wilds. Who knows what we might see then?

– John Dubensky

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Off the Edge of the Map

Wednesday we had to basically call for a rain delay on account of all of the thunderstorms raging through the Pennsylvania Wilds, so we spent that day working in the lab. Because of that, for Thursday we had to get a move on and make up for lost time. We spent the majority of the day working in an area that is home to a number of different fracking sites, all in various stages of progress.

Fracking site

Fracking site

Our work was impeded because of all the rainfall that hit the area Wednesday. Lots of rain makes streams much deeper than they normally are, and these highflow conditions make it difficult for us to collect the samples that we need to collect. Both the first stream and the last stream that we tried to hit ended up being far too high for us to gather any satisfactory data. We still managed to get a decent amount of work done, though; at one site we were even greeted by a small ring-neck snake basking on a rock.

Small ring-neck snake

Small ring-neck snake

At that same site, we also caught a brook trout that was in the middle of eating a salamander.

Brook trout eating a salamander

Brook trout eating a salamander

Several of the streams we visited were also very turbid (making it difficult to see the fish we were trying to net) because of the recent heavy rains and the construction going on in the area.

Recently constructed pipeline

Recently constructed pipeline

This was especially visible at one confluence (the place where two streams meet) – the clear waters of the unnamed tributary clashed against the cloudy waters of the larger stream.

Where two streams meet

Where two streams meet

What we ended up doing was spending a large chunk of time on reconnaissance by scouting out new potential streams near sites which will soon be fracked. We were inside our beloved gray Juniata College van for a good portion of the day, trying to navigate through the back roads of Pennsylvania. We can’t use any kind of commercial navigation system because A) we usually don’t have any kind of cellular reception or signal and B) many GPS systems don’t recognize smaller backwoods roads that are off the beaten path. Because of this, we have to rely primarily on good old fashioned maps. We’ve gotten off track many times before, and this was no exception; at one point we even ended up at a muddy dead end, and we all had to push the van out of a ditch.

Though much of the time we’re in relatively secluded areas where we don’t see too many other people, this wasn’t the case for what we did Thursday since we were working in a vast network of fracking sites all owned by one company. You’d be surprised by just how massive the entire operation is – they had to construct an entire system of access roads just for the vehicles to be able to reach all the actual drilling sites. Just making these roads must have not only been a huge project in itself, but it also must have cost a massive amount of money.

Another fracking site

Another fracking site

So as we drove around from stream to stream that day, we often encountered workers, big tanker trucks, and security personnel in tiny little kiosks – for once, we weren’t alone. As you can imagine, we were given a number of inquisitive looks as we rode around. While some of the employees we encountered seemed to be somewhat uncomfortable with our presence, many workers that we talked to were actually very polite and helpful.

There were some exceptions, however. Up the road from one stream that we surveyed (which, in previous years, had not been fracked) were several freshly built wellpads and drill rigs. For the Marcellus & Mercury project, it’s important for us to know whether or not a stream is in a watershed that has been fracked, and this information is usually very difficult to attain through conventional means. So, Dr. Grant decided to try his luck and go up and talk with the project manager to ask if he would share with us when the fracking would actually begin. The supervisor, along with two of his associates, chose to set the mood as soon as Grant walked into his office:

“Just so you know, this guy here carries a gun with him all the time, so be careful what you say.”

The conversation just went downhill from there. As you can probably guess, the supervisor didn’t tell Grant when the fracking would begin. As unhelpful and antagonistic as he was, I can sort of understand why a person might react that way – on some level I’m sure he felt threatened, especially because he was uncertain about our research and goals (he also asked what fracking has to do with biology). I can see why they might think otherwise, but we aren’t “out to get” the fracking companies; we just want to know what effects fracking may or may not have on the environment. But when someone like that who works for a fracking company treats us with such hostility, it definitely makes you wonder why exactly they have an issue with transparency.

– John Dubensky

Horror Stories

The first stream that we hit today was a place we called Wriggle Run. Accessing the fracked Wriggle Run involved a short hike through the woods and wading across a small river like we were on an expedition in the Amazon. The destination ended up being a site which would be absolutely perfect for a scary movie set in the woods.

Wriggle Run

Wriggle Run

While it was really cool to see how spooky the stream looked in the morning fog, I half expected something to come crashing out of the tree line and come after us as we worked.

Alison and Devin assisting Dr. Grant as he electrofishes

Alison and Devin assisting Dr. Grant as he electrofishes

However, as we took data and the morning passed, we did end up encountering a few monsters, of sorts. Wriggle Run is home to a large population of lampreys, which is a kind of fish I hadn’t ever seen before. Lampreys certainly don’t look like fish – they look more like small snakes with giant, gaping mouths for faces. Click the picture below to check out a video of the lampreys.

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We eventually left all of the unsettling lampreys behind and set a course for the next stream. To get there, we had to take the “Devil’s Highway,” Route 666.  We even faced a moral dilemma, of sorts, given that the sign for the highway makes you choose between Route 666 or the Minister Creek Campground.

Sign for the Devil's Highway

Sign for the Devil’s Highway

While making our way to the next site we stumbled across another monster: an absolutely gigantic turtle.

Devin holding the turtle

Devin holding the turtle

This creature looked practically prehistoric. Since none of us are turtle experts, we really had no clue what kind of turtle it was, though the best guess was that it was some kind of enormous box turtle. Grant guessed that if the turtle was native to Pennsylvania and not just some kind of pet that someone had let loose, it had to be some kind of state record.  He also suggested we should contact Roy Nagle, our Juniata turtle expert.

Up close and personal

Up close and personal

We would have reached the next stream shortly after, but a bridge replacement and closed road meant we had to go rumbling through some back roads to finally reach the stream we called Thor Run. Luckily for us the stream was only about 100 yards from the van, because after about five minutes at the site, it began pouring down rain. Rain we can deal with – it certainly isn’t fun, but it’s not the worst thing in the world. The real issue was when we heard the rumble of thunder, meaning we couldn’t use the electrofisher to get the fish specimens we needed.

We continued to work through the downpour and the thunder, quickly collecting macroinvertebrates and checking the water chemistry. All in all we didn’t end up staying very long at Thor Run – electrofishing is what takes the longest, so without that, we were finished before very long. Unfortunately, this also means that we’ll have to return to the site at a later date to collect fish, but in the words of Grant, “that’s field work.”

– John Dubensky

Back in the Saddle (AKA the Juniata College Van)

We headed back out into the field today, first hitting up two fracked streams before finally making our way to the homestead for the night. The first stream, a place we called Pebble Run, involved a relatively short and simple hike. On the way down I almost stepped on a black and yellow snake that quickly darted into the bushes (I was assured afterward that it wasn’t a dangerous snake). There was also a makeshift bridge that we crossed to reach the site.

Bridge across Pebble Run

Bridge across Pebble Run

After we completed both electrofishing runs and processed all the fish, Grant consulted his notes on last year’s research. Apparently last year, at this same stream, we had caught almost twice as many fish. While according to Grant this wasn’t anything we could draw solid conclusions from, it certainly looked suspicious.

Pebble Run

Pebble Run

Though the hike back to the van was a hot one, everyone was in a good mood because hey, at least it wasn’t raining. Devin and I led the march back to our parking spot, and the rest of the group was close behind us.

pebblerun3

We then headed to one more stream, a site we called Rattler Creek based on the supposed prevalence of rattlesnakes in the area (though we didn’t encounter any). Rattler Creek was easy enough to get to, but thick vegetation made it difficult to navigate around the stream as we worked.

Rattler Creek

Rattler Creek

At Rattler Creek we ended up encountering a similar issue to the one we faced at Pebble Run: we were catching a noticeably smaller amount of fish than the previous year. Just from a research standpoint this can be a problem, since we need five different size classes of trout to take back to the lab with us. As Alison and I were finishing up electrofishing, we still hadn’t caught any brook trout large enough to qualify for either of the two largest size classes. We got lucky further downstream, however, and found the right sized trout we needed, including one very colorful specimen.

Colorful brook trout

Colorful brook trout

Still, we only ended up catching 17 fish total at the stream, which is significantly less than the 26 that were caught last year. That isn’t a huge difference, of course, but it’s certainly worth nothing. The numbers at Pebble Run were much more drastic – whereas last year we caught 25 fish, today we only caught 12. Again, the lower numbers of trout we saw at both sites could simply be coincidental and have nothing to do with any kind of outside influence (like fracking), but it’s interesting nonetheless. Hopefully we find a lot more trout during the rest of the week.

– John Dubensky

Moccasin Revisited (video)

Seeing as how we’ll be heading back out into the Wilds tomorrow morning for another week of exciting field work, I thought I’d share with everyone a short video I put together using some footage of us climbing down to Moccasin Run two weeks ago (I was wearing a GoPro camera on my head for the entire descent). Click the picture below to check out the video. I can’t wait to find out if any of the streams we’re surveying this week are as “fun” to get to as Moccasin Run was.

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Microbes, microbes – they are everywhere!

Microorganisms (aka microbes) are those forms of life you can’t see with the naked eye… But I assure you they are important – no, they are ESSENTIAL to our world. Microbes account for most of the diversity of life on our planet. There are more kinds of microbes than all other forms of life combined. The evolutionary tree of life is dominated by microbial life forms. This evolutionary tree has revealed that microbes are very old; in fact, they were the first forms of life to exist, and have been around for more than three billion years! However, just because these life forms are old and tiny doesn’t mean that they are less complex or sophisticated than larger life forms. They inhabit and have adapted to every environment on earth and can eat just about anything, including compounds that are toxic to us – including heavy metals, acids, petroleum constituents, methane, literally anything. Microbes live in unfathomable places; boiling hot springs in Yellowstone national park, deep inside oceanic crust, inside of ice crystals, in caves… You get where I’m going with this. Microbes live EVERWHERE!

Did you know that you are more microbial than you are human? If you count up all the organisms that live on you and inside of you, there are roughly 100 trillion of them! There are ten times more microbial cells than human cells. But don’t worry – don’t get out your hand sanitizer yet! Most of those microorganisms are beneficial; they help you digest your food and make nutrients that your own body can’t synthesize. This ‘microbial cloud’ or the human microbiome contains 300 times more genes than our human genome! We are now learning that our human microbiome is responsible for maintaining health and that if your microbiome gets ‘out of whack’ it can contribute to disease presentation. For example, people with diabetes, obesity, inflammatory bowel diseases, skin diseases, neurological disorders, and so on all have different microbiomes than people that are healthy. Microbiologists are just beginning to unravel the importance of our microbiome in human health.

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One of the reasons we don’t know much about microbes yet is because they are hard to study… Or at least they used to be. Traditionally, microbiologists tried to grow and isolate microbes one-by-one to study them. But it turns out microbiologists are not a bunch of ‘Mrs. Green Thumbs’ – we can’t grow most microbes in the lab. In fact it is predicted that we can only cultivate about 1% of all the microbes out there. So you might be asking: well, how can we study the other 99% of microorganisms? Enter modern genomics tools! Now, without picking up a petri dish, I can tell you what types and how many microbes are in any environmental sample (soil, water, feces, etc). No, I’m not a magician, but I am a molecular microbial ecologist. How do I do it? Well, microbes have DNA just like us, and that DNA encodes for genes which are the blueprints for making all of the proteins a cell needs to live. It turns out that all bacteria have a very special gene in common (16S rRNA gene). The DNA sequence of this gene varies from organism to organism just like your genome is different than your friend’s genome. You can think of this DNA sequence as a microbial fingerprint, which enables us to identify one microbe from another. In my lab, we sequence this special gene from all of the bacteria in a sample, so we can identify and count up all the members of the ‘microbial community.’ We can then measure how the types and abundances of these organisms change with respect to any environmental parameter of interest.

Our lab is interfacing with the Grant Lab to study the potential impacts of fracking in aquatic ecosystems. As you might remember from  previous blog posts, Dr. Grant’s group is studying the impacts in macro-organisms such as fish and macroinvertabrates. The Lamendella Lab is focusing on the impacts of fracking on the microbes that also live in these aquatic ecosystems. Since microbes are so well-adapted to their environments, they can respond very quickly – faster than any other life form – to changes in their surrounding environment.  We are studying if fracking development is having any impact on the aquatic microbial community structure, by comparing microbes living in these streams in watersheds with and without fracking development.

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Students from the Lamendella Lab including Alyssa and Nikea go out in the field almost every week with the Grant Lab to take sediment, moss, biofilm, and water samples. Instead of analyzing what can be measured with an instrument, we want to analyze the millions of bacteria living in our samples. Just to isolate the bacterial DNA is a long process, but after days of preparation, we are able to analyze millions of sequences of bacterial DNA and determine what bacteria are present. It helps us answer questions such as: what bacteria are in streams with Marcellus Shale activity, but not streams without activity? How do the number of those bacteria vary based on Marcellus Shale activity? And we can learn even more than that! Certain bacteria are known to have specific functions. By knowing what bacteria are in our samples, we can try to determine what they may be doing in our environment. Are the microbes helping deal with potential inputs or releases from fracking?

These are just some of the questions we are trying to answer with our microbial genomics tools. Combined with Dr. Grant’s ecological data we hope to have a multi-trophic understanding of the potential impacts of fracking in these precious aquatic ecosystems. In future posts I hope to take you through the laboratory and bioinformatics techniques we employ in my lab to answer these exciting questions!

– Dr. Gina Lamendella (and Abigail Rosenberger ’16)

Why Mercury?

“Why mercury?”

This is the most common question I get when I talk to people (farmer, scientist, friend, or family member) about the research we are conducting on the potential impacts of Marcellus shale natural gas extraction on mercury (Hg) levels in stream ecosystems.

Many want to know why we aren’t focusing our efforts on the more apparent or obvious variables such as stream pH, biodiversity, or common contaminants included in frackwater or flowback (e.g. radioactive compounds, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, or methane). I should also state here, that we are measuring some of these variables too, but they were not the main goal of this project.

The simplest answer is that it is for sure, in part, from my background and education. I remember sitting in an Ecotoxicology class as a college student and being intrigued by how contaminants, such as mercury, can affect living things. Since I first started learning about Hg, I was fascinated by its ability to be largely harmless to us and other animals in one form (inorganic), and, in another form (organic) a nasty neurotoxin that accumulates in our tissues. Under the right (or wrong) conditions, the largely inert form of Hg can transform (methylation) and bioaccumulate in organisms and increase in concentration (biomagnification) as it works its way through the food chain to top predators (e.g., humans or brook trout) in a system. The source of Hg is also interesting in that it can arrive to the atmosphere and remote landscapes via natural processes (forest fires, volcanoes, etc.); however, it is largely agreed upon that the most significant source is from our combustion of fossil fuels (coal fired power plants). In graduate school, I continued to spend a lot of time studying mercury and its implications on biota such as fish and stream ecosystems. So, one could say that I already had mercury on the brain for some time….no pun intended…but that isn’t the only or main reason.

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The main reason to study Mercury is that no one knows whether Marcellus activities are impacting Hg concentrations in stream ecosystems, and, given mercury’s ability to persist and bioaccumulate, I felt it was worth exploring. In science and life, I am always drawn to the unanswered questions, the difficult questions, the ones that will likely take a decade or more to definitively answer. This is exactly what we are in the midst of- a study that has already taken 3 years to establish sound data to build upon. Furthermore, mercury is a controversial topic to begin with, so combining it with another hot button topic, Marcellus Shale and fracking, seemed only logical. A little controversy is always a good thing for science.

Honestly though, to my knowledge, there has only one been one study (other than our forthcoming pub in the Journal of Environmental Science and Health) that has even measured Hg in relation to Marcellus and fracking. This study was conducted by the NY City department of Environmental Protection showed that flowback samples at two well sites contained Hg concentrations approaching 600 PPB (USEPA drinking water standards are at 2PPB-parts per billion). While 28/30 sites in this study had no recordable levels of Hg in the flowback water, the two that did were alarmingly high. Was this due to differences in geology of the drill sites? Because of different drilling companies and therefore different “proprietary” mixtures of frackwater used? These and other questions have helped guide our thought process on our research.

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Even if frackwater and flowback water has no Hg in it, Marcellus Shale natural gas extraction still has the potential to increase Hg concentration in streams and their biota. Documented spills or inadvertent leakage of frackwater/flowback to streams has the potential to significantly change water chemistry and biodiversity, thereby altering the transformation and biomagnification of Hg in streams and their biota. Additionally, significant clearing of land in small watersheds near to the stream has the potential to increase transport of Hg from the forest floor (deposited from atmospheric sources), to streams.

There are many pathways to explore when attempting to determine if Marcellus Shale Natural Gas extraction is effecting Hg concentration in streams and their biota. Our goal is to assess whether these are “potential effects” or true “effects” of Marcellus Shale natural gas extraction on increased Hg levels in streams. At this point, we have more questions than answers, but for me and the rest of the group, that is what makes science so fun!

– Dr. Christopher J. Grant

 

 

4 Things You Should Know About Electrofishing

Anytime I talk to someone about the research we’re conducting, I get a nearly identical response almost every time I start talking about electrofishing. Whether it’s someone in my family, one of my friends back home in Pittsburgh, or just some random person who’s curious as to why we’re trudging through the backwoods with all kinds of weird equipment, their reaction to hearing about “electrofishing” usually sounds something like this:

“You electrocute the fish?!”

Either that or they call it cheating, if they’re fishing enthusiasts. Well, it’s not as simple as that – there’s actually a lot to understand about electrofishing. Of course, a month ago I didn’t know anything about electrofishing, and I would have probably reacted the exact same way if I had heard someone talking about it. So, just like yesterday’s post on fracking, I thought it might be helpful to explain a thing or two about electrofishing and how it works.

4. It doesn’t kill the fish

This has to be the most important thing to understand about electrofishing – when done correctly, the process does not kill the fish. Electrofishing is a very common technique used by biologists to survey populations of freshwater fish. This is accomplished by using the equipment to temporarily stun the fish so that they can be collected. There are a few different kinds of electrofishers, but what the Grant Lab uses is a Smith Root backpack model.

Jacob wearing the electrofishing equipment

Jacob wearing the electrofishing equipment

Backpack models can be powered by either a battery or a generator (we use a battery). The backpack sends a pulsed electrical current into the water, which is delivered by two electrodes – an anode (the positive electrode) and a cathode (the negative electrode). On our model, the anode is the diamond-shaped metal ring at the end of the pole, and the cathode is the braided metal cable which is meant to drag behind the person who is electrofishing. Current travels from the anode, through the water, then back through the cathode. The final result is that fish around the anode end up getting stunned (but not killed).

3. It’s not as easy as it sounds

What I’d like to address next are the people who believe electrofishing to be an excessively easy means of catching fish. Obviously we’re not doing this for sport – we can’t sit around all day with fishing rods, trying to catch enough fish so that we have an adequate amount of data; we have to be efficient. That being said, electrofishing is actually much more difficult than it sounds.

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You see, with the right amount of current, the fish will go into taxis – an involuntary muscle response that makes the fish swim towards the anode. As the fish get closer to the anode, they will eventually go into narcosis and float belly up, stunned (this doesn’t just happen with fish, actually: we sometimes come across stunned frogs, salamanders, and even snakes). However, narcosis only lasts a few seconds, at the most; if we’re operating at a low voltage, the fish might only be stunned for a split second. After the stun has worn off, the fish do everything in their power to get as far away from us as possible. This is what makes electrofishing challenging, because we only have a short window of time to try to net the fish before they escape under a rock, stump, or upstream. It can be difficult, but it’s also kind of fun.

2. The entire body of water does not become a blanket of electricity

Another important thing to understand about electrofishing with a backpack unit is that it only works in a limited range; it’s not like we stick the electrodes in the water and flip a switch and suddenly everything in the stream is stunned. What happens is that a transformer actually makes the current pulse out into the water, in waves, in the shape of the anode – so, in our case, a diamond. All the water within a meter or so of the anode will be shocked, but beyond that, the current is no longer strong enough to do anything.

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A stunned brook trout

But still, we have to be careful, because if we touch the water near the electrofisher, we could also be shocked. Thanks to the thick rubber waders that we wear in the water, we won’t get shocked while walking around the stream. We don’t generate enough current to seriously hurt a fish, let alone a human, but just to be sure there are plenty of safety precautions built into the equipment to make sure that no one gets shocked – including audible beeping that lets everyone know when the electrofisher is on, and a failsafe that turns off the electricity if the backpack becomes submerged or is tilted more than 45 degrees. There is also an on/off switch on the anode pole that is operated by whoever is wearing the equipment.

1.  The majority of fish are released back into the stream

As we stun and net fish, we place them into a bucket full of water to await processing. Once an adequate stretch of the stream has been electrofished (or if we’re running out of room in the bucket), then we can start processing the fish. While we keep track of the number of each fish species we catch, we’re mostly interested in trout. Any brook trout or brown trout that we catch are measured and their length and weight are recorded. Sometimes getting this data can be difficult, especially if the fish is being particularly uncooperative.

Me processing fish with Devin and Jen

After all the fish have been processed, we release them back into different parts of the stream. For the Marcellus & Mercury project, we do keep several brook trout per stream to analyze various tissues for mercury concentration, take morphemetric measurements, and determine age and food sources.

Hopefully that clears up electrofishing a little better for everyone. Who knows, maybe you learned something today! Feel free to post a comment if you have any questions.

– John Dubensky

Fracking Explained

As I stated in my very first post, a short while ago I had no idea what fracking was or how it worked. I knew it had something to do with resources and energy, and it seemed to be a hot-button issue, but I had absolutely no knowledge on the subject. As a result of my work in the Grant lab, I’m no longer quite as clueless, though it took me a while to really comprehend what fracking actually was and why any potential impacts of fracking need to be assessed. As a result, I thought it might be helpful to write a post explaining fracking in a nutshell, in the hopes that others will be able to understand what’s happening in Pennsylvania a little better.

What is Fracking?

Put very simply, fracking is a method of extracting resources such as oil and natural gas from the ground. Various rock formations buried deep under our feet contain valuable materials such as natural gas, but getting these resources out of the ground can be very difficult. One way to extract substances from rock formations is by using hydraulic fractures – veins and cracks throughout the rock that allow things like natural gas to drain out. Just like your doctor can thread a tiny endoscope into your bloodstream to reach various organs, hydraulic fractures provide access to collections of natural gas and other valuable resources.  These hydraulic fractures can occur naturally, but when people talk about fracking, they are referring to induced hydraulic fracturing.

Fracking site

Fracking site

Induced hydraulic fracturing is accomplished by first drilling into the ground and constructing wells to reach the desired rock formation. From there, fracking fluid can be pumped into the well to reach the rock formation. This fluid is pumped at such high pressures that it actually fractures the targeted material – like one of those power washers you use to clean your patio, except a thousand times more powerful. This high pressure pumping creates a system of veins, cracks, and fissures in the rock. Proppants, which can be made up of sand or ceramic particles, are also pumped into the rock formation once it has been fractured as means of keeping the fissures from collapsing.

Once the rock formation has been fractured and proppants have been placed to keep the fractures open, reservoirs of oil and natural gas can finally be accessed. These resources are pumped back to the surface along with huge amounts of flowback liquid, which is essentially fracking fluid mixed with whatever chemicals it may have encountered during the fracking process. The flowback liquid can be stored on-site in giant reservoirs, pumped down into underground wells, or taken to treatment facilities.

Fracking fluid reservoir

Fracking fluid reservoir

Marcellus Shale in Pennsylvania

Marcellus Shale is a kind of sedimentary rock formation found throughout the northeast that contains vast amounts of natural gas. A large portion of Pennsylvania sits atop huge formations of Marcellus Shale, which makes areas such as the Pennsylvania Wilds ripe for natural gas extraction via fracking. The prospect of being paid large sums of money for land and mineral rights, especially in a harsh economy, is all too appealing for many landowners throughout Pennsylvania.

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The fracking industry has flourished throughout Pennsylvania in the past couple of years, and Marcellus Shale natural gas extraction shows no signs of stopping. According to the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, over 6000 wells have been drilled in Pennsylvania in the past four years alone. Experts project that over 60,000 wells will be drilled by 2030.

Why We Are Concerned About Fracking

Without a doubt, fracking is an efficient method of obtaining energy sources that are becoming more and more valuable in today’s world. However, even though fracking has been argued as a safe and clean extraction technique, there are several possible dangers that fracking may pose to the environment. Speaking in generalities, research suggests that fracking may be responsible for contaminating water supplies, polluting the air, and causing earthquakes.

Fracking can release various unsavory compounds into the air, including benzene, sulfur dioxide, and hydrogen sulfide – none of which are good things to expose humans to. Fracking has also been linked to causing seismic activity, inducing earthquakes in areas where fracking is very prevalent but earthquakes certainly are not. But overall, the biggest worry related to fracking is concerned with water contamination. Given that fracking fluid is used in such high volumes throughout the fracking process, it isn’t hard to imagine why the public might be worried about the effects that fracking might have on the environment. Fracking fluid can potentially drain or leak off into water supplies, as well as into streams, rivers, and lakes. There have also been several documented fracking fluid spills, such as a 2011 incident where EOG Resources Inc. spilled chemicals into Little Laurel Run.

Stream contaminated by spilled fracking fluid

Stream contaminated by spilled fracking fluid

We personally visited Little Laurel Run, and I can tell you based on a few simple tests that it was significantly impacted – the waters had a pH of 4.93. This NPR info-graphic showcases all the violations committed by fracking companies since 2009 – 3331 violations across 6391 active wells.  Fracking companies are not required by federal law to disclose what chemicals are used in fracking fluid, since fracking is exempt from certain requirements of the Safe Drinking Water Act. However, certain states (including Pennsylvania) have instated various regulations requiring companies to disclose what chemicals they’re using – but these companies are still allowed to claim “trade secrets” so that they don’t have to release information about certain chemicals that they use.

So, all in all, you can see why the potential impacts of fracking are worth looking into. Hopefully this post cleared up some confusion that some people might have, and feel free to post a comment if anyone has a question about any of this.

– John Dubensky

Notes from the Road in the “Pennsylvania Wilds”

The following post is an essay composed for Wilds on Frack by the famous writer and Penn State English professor, Dr. Julia Spicher Kasdorf.  We were lucky enough to have Julia spend a day with us in the field last week and generously share this essay.

The Earth Heals AND it’s Damaged beyond Recognition

“The earth heals,” Jerry said, and to prove it, he pointed through his pickup windshield at a white-tail doe and fawn grazing on one of those too-smooth, too-green slopes that you immediately recognize as land reclaimed from a strip mine. We had just passed the Eagles Ridge Golf Club south of Curwensville, also established on reclaimed land.   Then his truck turned onto a gravel road that runs past a farm that was being stripped, the earth dug close to the house’s front porch and the dairy barn’s threshold.

I recall that conversation nearly a year later, on June 10, as I drive back up onto the Allegheny Plateau.   I head west on route 80 toward Penfield, where I plan to meet up with Dr. Chris Grant and his team of Juniata student researchers. Last summer, as I was beginning my inquiries into shale gas development for a documentary poetry project, Jerry kindly welcomed me into his home, a stranger his daughter knew. I wanted to hear about his work, driving around Clearfield County, testing water for a coal company.   Jerry is a fisherman and hunter, a gardener and nature lover, and I was curious to get his take on the Marcellus Shale boom.

His background is worth recounting here because it reveals so much about this region’s past. Jerry’s grandfather ran a small dairy farm like those you see in varying states of preservation in north-central Pennsylvania. His father worked as a lumberman until 1968 or ‘69, when the market flooded and he suddenly found himself stuck with an entire warehouse of cherry and hardwood. (I blame the growing appetite for plastics.) He told his two teenaged sons that making a living from the land was no longer possible; they’d better find other paths. Jerry enrolled in the plumbing course at Penn Tech and moved to Williamsport, where he met his future wife. Kathy’s grandfather had worked on the “Last Raft” on the West Branch of the Susquehanna, a mass of logs floating downstream that tragically collided with a railroad bridge in March 1938. Because he’d gotten off the raft at his home in Williamsport, her grandfather was not among the 45 who plunged into the river at Muncie. Only 38 were rescued.

The newlyweds returned to Clearfield County to raise their family. At the time, the only good jobs around there were in coal production. Jerry and his brother both turned to the industry, but Jerry vowed he’d never go down a deep mine. He worked at the colliery long enough to watch changes in the technology for washing and separating coal. Kathy maintained a small general store, but closed it some years later after it was robbed by people associated with a meth lab operating on a back road between Curwensville and Tyrone. By then, Jerry had moved on to his dream job: testing streams and water wells for a coal company.

As he showed me the reclaimed fields south of the Lumber City Highway and West Branch of the Susquehanna on that luminous summer evening, he also pointed out ruins from the 19th century’s coal and lumber booms—railroad beds, tunnels, entire villages now overgrown with wildflowers and saplings, invisible unless you know where to find them. A coal baron’s stately Victorian mansion overlooks stripped fields in the process of reclamation.

He explained that the Shawville Generating Station, a major coal-burning electric plant just north of Route 80, is set to close for environmental and economic reasons in 2015. He worries about the loss of jobs, both directly and indirectly, remembering a coal boss from earlier times who paid his workers in only $2 bills one week, so that every time someone spent or was paid a $2 bill in that community, they’d know the money had come from coal. The only hopeful sign, he said, is that some Amish families from Ohio had recently purchased farms on reclaimed land. “The earth heals,” he repeated. You can’t build anything on that ground for fifty years, but sheep can graze, and the Amish plan to put in a bakery not far from Kathy’s former store.

Jerry’s faith in the earth’s resilience, his obvious love of the land and his allegiance to coal—despite the industry’s degradation of both water and air—have stayed with me. Since then, I have heard others make the same argument in other parts of the state: “The earth heals. Don’t worry. It will come back; look what happened to the acid coal streams.” Yet unlike coal processes, fracking fluids are exempt from the Clean Water Act of 1972.

At the same time, I also hear that things are so far gone, there’s no point in fighting the latest industrial boom. What’s the use when this seems cleaner than coal at least? Last month, one of my colleagues paraphrased reports from the Penn State Shale Network Workshop: Pennsylvania’s streams are so contaminated from mine drainage and industry that it’s hard to detect much impact from fracking, unless there’s been a major spill.

The son of a lumberman, Jerry believes in the earth’s endless capacity to recover, while others wonder whether our streams are too polluted for the new industrial boom to make a noticeable impact. Ironically, these two positions are opposed, and yet both can be used to advocate for shale gas development!

All of this churns in my mind as I pass the Curwensville exit and drive on toward Penfield. A white pickup with a gas industry logo and a Williamsport address drives beside me and presses on, traveling at least 20 miles per hour over the speed limit. This past year, on sabbatical from Penn State’s English Department, with help from the Institute for Arts and Humanities, I’ve tried to learn everything I can about shale gas. I’ve talked with people who experience its impacts firsthand— industry workers, landowners, lease holders, waitresses and cleaning ladies, scientists, a lawyer, and passionate citizens on both sides of the issue—largely in Tioga, Lycoming, Fayette and Westmoreland Counties. I’ve read books on the topic and watched countless lectures and demonstrations on YouTube.

As I’ve grasped some things about this complex and changing industry, I’ve seen that I don’t need to travel far from my home in Centre County to find its signs. A transmission pipeline runs within a mile of my house in Bellefonte; a large compressor station sits on a former cornfield, concealed behind well service businesses along College Avenue in Pleasant Gap, where the foot of the Nittany Ridge is aggressively quarried for gravel to build access roads and well pads west and north and east of my home. I can’t drive ten miles to work without spotting a truck hauling gravel or brine or the noxious fluids and drill cuttings that are vaguely placarded “residual waste.”

The last few miles on Route 153 before my rendezvous with the Juniata van in the Minit Mart parking lot at the crossroads in Penfield, I shift down and tail a truck that rides its breaks down the ridge. The RoseBud Mining Company’s Lady Jane Preparation Plant is visible on the right: an enormous stockpile behind stackers and sheds for washing and grading the coal. RoseBud’s Penfield Mine began operations in 2006. There’s no neat progression from one extractive industry to another in Pennsylvania; we often witness the work—and impacts—of several at once, which is why it is so hard to trace fracking’s tracks in these parts.

Maps On Top of Maps

I pull in by the van and the instant the door opens, Grant greets me with the news that he and the students have been speculating about what kind of car I drive. They nailed the make, but not the model, a Subaru-saddled professor as predictable as the weather this week: rain, light rain, scattered showers, rain.

As Nicole traces her finger along hairline roads on a battered paper map—forget GPS for these dirt loggers’ lanes—Grant explains how they found their sites: streams with populations of wild trout untainted by industry, yet within the watersheds of Marcellus Shale drilling operations.

Pennsylvania Wilds

Imagine Fish and Boat Commission maps of wild trout populations super-imposed onto Department of Environmental Protection well permit maps that had to be verified by hikes to the remote well sites—all set in those ragged green shapes that indicate the Allegheny National Forest and other State Forests and Gamelands, the region designated “Pennsylvania Wilds” by the Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development. According to the visitpa.com site for “Pennsylvania Wilds,” the tourist destinations they’re trying to sell sit squarely on the state’s northern Marcellus Shale formation, from Williamsport and Bradford on the east to Warren in the West: land rich in gas and poor in job opportunities.

For some, the 2014 Memorial Day weekend bombshell dropped by Governor Corbett—an executive decision to lift the moratorium on additional leasing of state lands for gas drilling—raises the question of how long these “Wilds” will stay wild.

From the van’s front seat, it looks plenty wild to me: green, green, green interrupted by splashes of mountain laurel just breaking into bloom, and several fearless deer and a ringnecked pheasant on the road. As we approach the site at Laurel Run, I see the familiar orange capped posts that mark gas pipelines; a line appears to run directly under this pristine stream.

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As soon as we stop, the students spring into action, unloading gear and grabbing tools and buckets from the back of the van. The 100 meters under scrutiny is quite close to the road, no need to hike in to a remote location. Alison loans me her waders so I can try to be a part of the data collection process. She’s from Lewistown, where I was born, so I feel an affinity, plus I admire her enthusiasm for the lowly caddisfly nymph.

“Shocking,” Grant says, and a power pack on his back beeps the warning of a truck in reverse, while its probe sends an electrical current through the water as he sweeps it over the rocky streambed. A belly-up brookie flashes sliver for an instant, but if the net isn’t right there, it darts under a log. We fish the full 100 meters, netting a couple of prehistoric-looking slimy sculpins, the minnow-sized black-nose dace, and some crayfish. Someone else nets the brook trout, but this is too much like sports for me. I’d rather see what else is going on.

Upstream, student researchers pick macroinvertebrates (insects in their worm-like nymph form) from the tattered bits of leaf they kick up under rocks then capture on canvas. On the bank, one student forces water into a filter to gather bacteria for DNA study; others record the results of pH and other water tests.   Their inquiries will demonstrate change (or not) in biodiversity, mercury burden, and microbial communities in fracked watersheds.

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When the specimens and data are gathered, the crew packs up and we pull off, eating our sandwiches enroute to the next stream. Three years into the study, Grant says he and his collaborator Dr. Regina Lamendella, do see differences in the streams in fracked watersheds. That research is theirs to report as it is tested and published. I’m just glad to be here, sloshing in these remote streams, glad to be able to think beyond “earth heals” and “it’s too polluted to tell” when it comes to mapping actual impacts of Marcellas gas drilling. I feel more than lucky to have gotten to spend a day as a guest of this crew in the Pennsylvania Wilds, and it didn’t rain afterall.

-Julia Spicher Kasdorf