Researchers at the University of Cincinnati are producing groundbreaking research on one of the leading techniques for extracting natural gas.
Amy Townsend-Small, assistant professor of geology at UC, is leading a team investigating fracking in Carroll County in northeastern Ohio, where fracking started about five years ago.
Fracking, also referred to as hydraulic fracturing, releases natural gas by breaking up underground shale with water mixed with sand and chemicals.
It is the concern of many environmental disputes because it could have potentially harmful effects on the environment, despite the fact that the industry can create more jobs and bring an influx of business into rural areas where drilling takes place.
“We want to address the question very rigorously and with an open mind,” said Erin Haynes, assistant professor of environmental health. “We’re not coming with a conclusion in hand; we actually want to see what the data will reveal. I think that’s important from our perspective because the pendulum swings from industry reporting that [hydraulic fracturing] is very safe to environmental groups saying it’s very unsafe.”
Haynes hopes this research can help fill the gaps between the opposing perspectives about fracking.
The team is investigating Carroll County because the fracking industry is rapidly growing there and it is the most shale-drilled site in the state, said Paul Feezel, chairman of Carroll Concerned Citizens.
CCC is a nonprofit formed five years ago to educate landowners on the industrialized mineral extraction and how to protect their rights, as some drilling sites are located on private property.
Before fracking, the main industry in the area was the farming of Christmas trees. There are 100 new drilling sites per year in the county — about two to three times more than any other drilling site in Ohio, Feezel said.
“It’s all about education so people can make their own decisions,” Feezel said. “We really try to focus historically on water rights and that is specifically because in Carroll County, 95 percent of the residents rely on private ground water wells.”
The group has been receiving a fair amount of local, state and national press because of its efforts to educate landowners, including attention from National Public Radio, NBC Nightly News and the Wall Street Journal.
Its website has attracted 40,000 visitors in the last three years.
The organization also focuses on water because the fracking process uses so much of it. In one year, fracking removes 4 to 5 million gallons from Ohio’s fresh water system, Feezel said.
“This [fracking] industry doesn’t just use water,” Feezel said. “It takes that water permanently out of the water system. So, we actually lose every single gallon of water used for shale gas.”
Fracking also poses a risk for air contamination.
Haynes is leading a study on air quality, in which Carroll County residents will wear wristbands that can measure their exposure to certain chemicals.
The wristbands can measure the presence of over 1,000 compounds in the air.
The health effects of fracking are still largely unknown because few studies are done on the subject.
The procedure uses highly toxic chemicals so risk is inherent. Haynes said the danger lies in exposure, but if the industry contains all the chemicals there should be no health issues.
There are still 200 to 300 full-time farmers in the area, but if fracking and its waste products are not contained properly, the industry could hurt farmers, Feezel said.
Even if the chemicals are contained, Carroll County residents are already feeling some of the effects.
Aspects of Carroll County that originally attracted residents — such as clean air, water and outdoor activities — are also at risk.
Feezel and his wife moved because of the changes, and he’s seen some second-and-third-generation residents move out.
“There is no doubt [the fracking industry] is changing our community,” he said. “I personally believe that it will take away many of the reasons people have chosen to stay here.”