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Yale, Penn State studies offer conflicting views of fracking

| Wednesday, Sept. 10, 2014, 10:57 p.m.

Two academic studies exploring health and water issues in the gas drilling industry on Wednesday painted very different pictures of its potential impact and brought rebukes from advocates on both sides.

A Yale University survey supported by environmental groups including The Heinz Endowments found increased reporting of certain health issues by people who live within a kilometer of working wells in Washington County.

A Penn State University study funded by industry groups found that fracking water that remains deep underground after a well is finished will stay trapped in shale, far away from groundwater supplies.

Both studies added to research that has yet to conclusively link the blossoming shale gas industry to health dangers or rule out such fears. The Environmental Protection Agency and state Department of Environmental Protection are conducting larger studies on air and water quality.

“There is a real need to do more,” said University of Washington's Dr. Peter Rabinowitz, lead author of the Yale survey published in the peer-reviewed journal Environmental Health Perspectives.

The survey of 180 households in 2012 is “the largest study we're aware of,” he said, conceding it did not conclude that gas wells caused health problems for anyone.

Researchers must complete testing on subjects and their environment before drawing conclusions, Rabinowitz said.

Penn State's geosciences professor Terry Engelder, whose study was published in the Journal of Unconventional Oil and Gas Resources, said his research shows injecting frack water into deep shale is safe.

“The practical implication is that hydro fracture fluids will be locked into the same ‘permeability jail' that sequestered over-pressured gas for over 200 million years,” he said.

Critics pounced on the funding sources for both studies.

Travis Windle, a spokesman for the Marcellus Shale Coalition in North Fayette, said the Yale survey was “done in partnership with a local activist group, and was designed to put selective and unproven data behind a pre-determined and biased narrative.”

It was supported by the Heinz Endowments, which has taken a strict anti-drilling stance in the past year, withdrawing support of a collaborative between the industry and environmental groups. Rabinowitz said the Southwest Pennsylvania Environmental Health Project, a Heinz-funded effort to find people with health issues in Washington County, helped researchers but did not participate in the survey.

Environmentalists said the Penn State study, funded by the drilling industry and including a researcher from Royal Dutch Shell plc, could not be trusted.

“That's a big red flag for us,” said Sam Bernhardt, a senior organizer for Washington-based Food and Water Watch.

Myron Arnowitt, state director for Clean Water Action, said the Penn State study focuses on the narrow issue of water trapped in shale, instead of potential contamination by water that flows back to the surface during drilling and fracking.

Last month, reports released by state regulators on the drilling of about 20,000 gas wells in the past decade identified 243 wells with potential problems. Only two were in Washington County, the area Yale studied.

That Yale survey was based on questionnaires about health problems and found 39 percent of those living within a kilometer of a working well reported upper respiratory or skin problems, compared with 31 percent of those living between 1 and 2 kilometers, and 18 percent of those living farther away.

There was no increase in reporting of other health issues, the researchers said, and the surveys did not look at other potential sources of air or water pollution, such as coal mines and power plants.

Participants received $25 each.

David Conti is a staff writer for Trib Total Media.

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