This post was written by Maria Fernanda Campa, who is an Energy Science and Engineering PhD student at the University of Tennessee’s Bredesen Center (bredesencenter.utk.edu) and a collaborator on the Marcellus project through Dr.Terry Hazen’s Lab. She is particularly interested in the energy-water nexus associated with unconventional gas extraction, and the tolerance and/or bioremediation capabilities of subsurface microorganisms to fracking fluids. Post edited by Chris Grant.
It was 7 am and the homestead already smelled like coffee and breakfast. There was a palpable energy in the environment, people were packing lunches and loading the van. As I took the first step down the stairs, I realized my legs still felt like spaghetti from the hikes through Moccasin Run and UNT to Birch Island Run the day before. I smiled proudly, “we survived Moccasin Run!”
Our first stream of the day was Dead Man’s Lick, a site that the group has visited in the past. A year before the group observed active drilling within the watershed, and by this summer fracking had begun.
It was a quite enjoyable day, and the stream was very accessible. Dr. Grant took extra time, to make sure the students that hadn’t tried a particular technique got the chance today. This was particularly exciting for me because that day I was taught how to electrofish! The electrofishing machine looks like something straight out of a Ghostbusters movie (see picture 1 and 2). Someone carries a backpack-size machine that spreads electrical pulses though the water using a pole with a wire loop. The small current temporarily “stuns” the fish near the pole, so it can be a bit easier to catch them with a net. I was able to catch most of fish that came my way (yay!), but a couple escaped.
Once I was done applying my new electrofishing skills, I went back to what I was there to do; get water samples for methane concentration and methane isotope analysis. We are interested in testing if there is methane in the streams, and if there is detectable methane, we want to know if the methane is naturally occurring in the streams or if it is coming from the subsurface as a result of fracking practices.
We took a bit longer than usual collecting the samples in this site, as we were all learning new techniques. Then while conducting fish morphology, we began discussing experimental design and different techniques that could help us answer the same scientific questions. After some more fun scientific discussion, we loaded the van and headed to our next stop, UNT to Naval Hollow.
UNT to Naval Hollow had a well pad near the stream that was cleared and prepped, but not fracked, when we sampled the stream last summer. I was excited to finally collect some non-fracked control sites for my study, as it seemed all the control sites in my list had started fracking operations recently. However, as we began sampling the stream, Grant immediately noticed that the stream pH was significantly lower than last year. After collecting the samples, we stumbled upon the well pad, which was actively being fracked. The well pad held 10 wells! I had never seen an operation so big! It was the first time I have seen an active fracking operation, and it seemed like at least some of the wells were already producing flowback water.
It is also worth noting that there were a lot of solar panels being used to harvest energy for the operation. It was an interesting juxtaposition of gas companies using renewable energy to extract fossil fuels. The irony of that, does not cease to amaze me.
Then we headed to the last site of the day, Potato Creek, a site that already active fracking within its watershed. The water was a funky off orange color, and there was some foam floating around, which I was told that is how it was last year. After finishing with water collection for methane analysis (figure 3), I helped out with the collection of macroinvertebrates. To do this I disturbed sediment (danceing around while kicking the stream floor) while Jada hold a kick net so the sediment (and macroinvertebrates) float into the net. After filling our kick nets, we headed to a flat area of land to pick out the little critters. As we started picking, we noticed the sun was starting to set. This made me happy as I finally got an excuse to use my headlamp. Once our headlamps were on, we gathered around and finish collecting the macro invertebrates.
This was the first day we were able to make it to three sites in one day, satisfied with the productivity of our day, we packed the van and started our drive back to the homestead. As the road turned pitch black, Devin started talking about things and stories that scared her the most (SLENDERMAN!). This started a conversation of horror stories and deepest fears. As we reach the homestead around 11 pm, we all ran inside and did not look back, in case the fracking slenderman was behind us.