Sunday, February 16, 2014

Building a Groundwater Quality Database for NY

(photo provided by Project SWIFT)

This summer, two graduate students from Syracuse University dropped by to collect water samples from my well. They were collecting data for Project SWIFT: Shale-Water Interaction Forensic Tools. My well was one of about 145 wells they tested between 2012 – 2013.

The goal of the project is to develop a geochemical tool that can “unambiguously identify contamination of surface water and groundwater” due to activities related to energy production using hydraulic fracturing. Step one is to create a database of groundwater quality data before fracking begins.

Some of the things they tested were methane, conductivity, metals (including barium and strontium), chloride, and volatile organic chemicals. Our water quality reflected the average in Tioga County in the Southern Tier of NY: very low amounts of most things – with methane being nearly undetectable.

Because they want as broad a picture of groundwater quality as possible, the Syracuse researchers placed a grid over a map of the five counties they planned to sample. The grid broke the counties into squares measuring 7 kilometers by 7 kilometers. Then they randomly selected three wells in each grid as potential test sites and sent letters to the homeowners. They only considered wells that were at least a mile from any horizontally fracked gas well.

The sampling teams collected water in a variety of plastic bottles and glass vials at each location. Methane samples needed to be analyzed quickly – so they were packed up at the end of the day and shipped overnight to the lab in Rochester. Other samples waited until the field team returned to Syracuse.

Back at the lab, some samples were analyzed using ion chromatography to analyze dissolved ions. Other tests were analyzed in a mass spectrometer; that’s good for identifying halogens such as chlorine and bromine, and metals such as lead and iron. The team also used gas chromatography to identify volatile organic chemicals and semi-volatiles including propane, ethylene, ethane and propylene.

Project SWIFT data is now available online in an “open-access, geospatially-referencedwater quality database”. Just click on a well and a pop-up shows water quality information.

The Community Science Institute in Ithaca has been conducting pre-drilling groundwater baseline testing for landowners. In a couple months they’ll have their data online in a searchable database. More on that later, but you can check out their surface water databases here.

You can read my longer article about Project Swift here.

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