Appalachian Basin

Columbia Researchers Actually Use Pre-Drilling Samples in Bizarre Attempt to Blame Water Contamination on Fracking

A new study of water wells in Northeastern Pennsylvania  conducted by researchers at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory claims to have found “heightened concentrations of some common substances in drinking water near sites where hydraulic fracturing has taken place.” Despite the fact that the researchers admitthe substances are not at dangerous levels and their sources are unclear,” they are still attempting to place the blame on fracking. Why? Because, as the researchers say, they “could be harbingers of eventual water-quality problems.”

That’s a pretty big stretch, and it doesn’t take long to understand why the researchers are grasping for straws, considering that the vast majority of the samples they evaluated were taken before drilling ever took place. Here are the important things to know:

Fact #1: The researchers evaluate mostly pre-drilling samples, yet they still blame the contamination on fracking 

Researchers took their own samples at 58 water wells in Northeastern Pennsylvania (Columbia data), and then analyzed 1701 public samples from Cabot Oil & Gas and 150 samples from Duke University. They then categorized the findings by location and distance as upland near or far and lowland near or far.  Interestingly, the authors acknowledge,

“The Columbia data do not show statistically significant differences among the 4 groups, probably due to the limited number of samples.”

That’s not all. Most of these samples that the researchers evaluated were pre-drilling samples. From the study:

“Although these 1701 samples are regarded as “pre-drilling” (i.e. prior to the drilling of specific proposed gas wells), about 20% (322 samples) were collected within 1 km of other gas wells drilled prior to the time of sampling, and therefore, based on the 1 km distance used by prior studies, can also be considered as potentially affected samples, i.e. “post-drilling or post-alternation” samples relative to the developed gas wells.”

So let’s do the math: the authors used 58 new samples, 150 from Duke, and 322 from Cabot that are considered as being taken after drilling took place. That’s 530 samples. The remaining 1,701 samples were taken prior to any drilling or hydraulic fracturing taking place. In other words, they could have had nothing to do with fracking.

Fact #2: The samples showed no levels that were above public health thresholds

The researchers found elevated levels of substances that are common to water wells in the region, but only in lowland areas. More importantly, these elevated levels weren’t considered dangerous. From the press release:

“Coauthor Reynold Panettieri, a physician who directs Rutgers University’s Institute for Translational Medicine and Science, said none of the substances seemed to be at hazardous levels.”

Fact #3: At least one researcher has a clear anti-fracking agenda.

This same team of authors is comprised of a few familiar names thanks to a study they conducted in July 2015. While headlines for that study linked fracking to a supposed uptick in hospitalizations for people living near shale development, the authors had to concede that “the study does not prove that hydraulic fracturing actually causes these health problems.”  Within the actual study the researchers also admitted,

The precise cause for the increase in inpatient prevalence rates within specific medical categories remains unknown.” (Page 14)

In reality, the data used in the hospitalization study actually showed that Bradford County had the most wells drilled, but actual had the lowest rates of hospitalizations, and that overall rates remained stable or even declined.

Further one of the researchers on both of these studies was Poune Saberi, who is openly opposed to shale development. This is evident from her blog posts on the website Protecting Our Waters, a group whose mission is:

“To protect our water, air, health, biodiversity, climate and communities, we aim to stop fracking.”

Saberi has made her agenda to stop fracking very clear on multiple occasions, such as following video:

“And I will say that until we have credible science that will help us answer these individuals and their communities, there must be a moratorium on all steps that are involved in the high volume and extreme methods of natural gas extraction, processing and transport.” (1:53)

And her mission extends to a wider anti-fossil fuel agenda, as is evident in one of her blog posts,

“There is a Dakota saying that goes like this: ‘When you find yourself riding a dead horse, dismount.’

My name is Dr. Poune Saberi and I am a physician in Occupational and Environmental Medicine and a faculty member at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania. I am here to say: fossil fuels are dead and we must dismount.”


While the authors of this latest Columbia study are hoping to use it as a means for more research into the potential impacts of fracking on groundwater, what it actually did is show once again that Northeastern Pennsylvania is a region, where especially in low-lying areas, we have historic water problems. And while the majority of times these levels of substances aren’t dangerous, they are present in the water. Thankfully, pre-drill samples such as the ones used in this study are available so the public can make realistic comparisons about the quality of water before and after development.

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