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Association of groundwater constituents with topography and distance to unconventional gas wells

Huge banner showing three glasses w/ muddy water from different fracked counties in Pennsylvania.

Despite claims made by the EPA, most residents of Dimock, PA refuse to drink their tap water due to toxic contamination by fracking fluids. (Photo: William Avery Hudson via CommonDreams.org)

The outcome of this large empirical evaluation of groundwater samples up and downwards from fracked UGD wells in Pennsylvania hints to possible negative impacts of UGD on water quality, thus to pathogenic effects of this production technique.


  • Groundwater (GW) quality was associated with distance to UGD gas wells and topography.
  • Ca, Cl, & SO4 levels are higher in GW near gas wells, especially in valley settings.
  • Enhanced mixing of fresh and saline waters in valley may cause the change.


Recently we reported an association of certain diseases with unconventional gas development (UGD). The purpose of this study is to examine UGD’s possible impacts on groundwater quality in northeastern Pennsylvania. In this study, we compared our groundwater data (Columbia 58 samples) with those published data from Cabot (1701 samples) and Duke University (150 samples). For each dataset, proportions of samples with elevated levels of dissolved constituents were compared among four groups, identified as upland far (i.e. ≥ 1 km to the nearest UGD gas well), upland near (less 1 km), valley far (≥ 1 km), and valley near (less 1 km) groups.

The Columbia data do not show statistically significant differences among the 4 groups, probably due to the limited number of samples. In Duke samples, Ca and CI levels are significantly higher in the valley near group than in the valley far group. In the Cabot dataset, methane, Na, and Mn levels are significantly higher in valley far samples than in upland far samples.

In valley samples, Ca, Cl, SO4, and Fe are significantly higher in the near group (i.e. less 1 km) than in the far group. The association of these constituents in valley groundwater with distance is observed for the first time using a large industry dataset.

The increase may be caused by enhanced mixing of shallow and deep groundwater in valley, possibly triggered by UGD process. If persistent, these changes indicate potential for further impact on groundwater quality. Therefore, there is an urgent need to conduct more studies to investigate effects of UGD on water quality and possible health outcomes.

Beizhan Yan, Martin Stute, Reynold A. Panettieri Jr., James Ross, Brian Mailloux, Matthew J. Neidell, Lissa Soares, Marilyn Howarth, Xinhua Liu, Pouné Saberi, Steven N. Chillrud
Association of groundwater constituents with topography and distance to unconventional gas wells in NE Pennsylvania
Science of The Total Environment. In Press, Corrected Proof.
Received 6 July 2016, Revised 3 October 2016, Accepted 20 October 2016, Available online 4 November 2016

See also:
Groundwater changes linked to fracking. Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, Columbia University; November 15, 2016


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