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UC testing water for fracking contamination

One of the still hotly contested debates over fracking is whether the practice of extracting trapped gas underground contaminates drinking water. Researchers at the University of Cincinnati are using an expensive machine to determine whether, at least in eastern Ohio, any contamination is naturally occurring or from fracking.

There's no shortage of negative publicity when it comes to fracking. Take the 2010 documentary "Gasland."


In the documentary a homeowner turns on the water and lights a match. Eventually there's so much methane the water goes up in flames.

Problem is methane can be naturally produced. It doesn’t necessarily come from the oil and gas companies that are doing horizontal hydraulic fracturing. A University of Cincinnati Geology professor is taking water samples from the Utica Shale region of Carroll County, Ohio to determine any contamination and its source. Dr. Amy Townsend-Small and her students travel to the eastern part of the state three to four times a year for this National Science Foundation grant funding her study.

Townsend-Small will not say if she has found contaminated water until the study is finished. The Associated Press compiled data in four states including Pennsylvania, Ohio, Texas and West Virginia. It showed there were more than 100 certified contaminated instances in the last five years. Since 2010 Ohio has received 190 complaints with six confirmed cases. Right now oil and gas companies don’t have to say what chemicals they are using in fracking. A U.S. Geological Survey reported such chemicals could increase the risk of cancer and cause infertility.

But it’s difficult to separate fracking related pollution from naturally occurring water well contamination. A 2011 study by Penn State found 40-percent of all water well sites in Pennsylvania before drilling didn’t meet federal government drinking water standards.

Townsend-Small uses an isotope ratio mass spectrometer to measure carbon and hydrogen isotopes of methane. This can determine if the methane is coming from natural gas or a naturally occuring source. She says her research will continue until the funding runs out.

Oil and gas companies say fracking is clean and safe.

Ann Thompson has decades of journalism experience in the Greater Cincinnati market and brings a wealth of knowledge and expertise to her reporting.