A new report from the U.S. Geological Survey shows that changes in the quality of water in the Monongahela River are minimal, despite 8 years of steady oil and gas drilling in West Virginia and Pennsylvania. Most contaminants found in groundwater during this survey were attributed to coal mining, not gas extraction. According to a local expert, that has been the trend since close monitoring of the Monongahela River began in 2009.

“People jump to the assumption that the problem was with the gas industry, and they may have had perfectly good reasons to think that, but when we started monitoring the river in July of 2009, we very quickly found out that a lot of the salts are the sort of things you’d find out of coal mine drainage,” said Paul Ziemkiewicz, director of the West Virginia Water Research Institute. 

The lack of fracking-related contaminants in the water proves that local drilling operations are meeting EPA standards, but Ziemkiewicz said there is still a risk of real issues developing down the road. After drilling is completed, Ziemkiewicz said the fracking waste water will have to go somewhere. If it goes into local water supplies, it will cause serious harm.

“Sort of the tail end of the produced water cycle is what concerns me, particularly if you don’t have a lot of new completions to take that water and put it somewhere,” said Ziemkiewicz. “So, we need to find a way to manage that water so it does not wind up back in the environment again.”

Ziemkiewicz is working with a regional team to find that solution. Funding from the U.S. Department of Energy created the Marcellus Shale Energy and Environment Laboratory at WVU. That lab gives access to a live drilling site, and allows experts like Ziemkiewicz to closely monitor the environmental impact of drilling.

Before this partnership, access to drilling sites was limited, but now, researchers at WVU have the ability to begin planning for the future of fracking. 

“If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it, and to a large extent, what we’re in the business of doing is measuring environmental problems so they don’t become problems,” said Ziemkiewicz. “If we don’t know what those problems are, and if we can’t characterize what those problems look like, we won’t be able to control them or put in protective measures.”