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UT-Arlington Researchers Plan Study On Gas Drilling Operations' Affect on Water Quality

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Last month, we mentioned a far-reaching University of Texas at Austin study of complaints about gas drilling operations that's just now getting underway. Meant to connect the dots between air, soil and water quality complaints from the Barnett to the Marcellus Shale, the nine-month project from the university's Energy Institute is a big-picture look at the effects of hydraulic fracturing and the rest of the growing industry.

Now, UT-Arlington sends word that one of its researchers is dipping his toes into North Texas's possibly contaminated drinking water, with a summer-long study of well sites around the Barnett Shale.

Assistant professor of chemistry Kevin Schug and a small team of scientists are hoping to build on the small body of published research into drinking water quality around gas drilling sites. (That Duke study earlier this year, you'll recall, covered only sites above the Marcellus Shale in Pennsylvania and New York.) And as the Startlegram already pointed out, Schug and company are looking for volunteers to get their wells tested.

Yesterday, Unfair Park caught up with environmental scientist Laura Hunt, one of the three researchers who, if you'll have them, could turn up at your doorstep to sample your water. After the jump, Hunt has some fascinating things to say about bioluminescent phytoplankton. What you don't know may surprise you.

Hunt, who did her post-doctoral research at UTA, says they're well aware of the high-strung political atmosphere around gas drilling and fracking, all of which, she says, makes it more important to conduct good science around the question. "We're not relaly going in with any kind of agenda other than our own scientific interests," Hunt says. "We see that there's a gap in the scientific literature in this issue."

Like the Duke study, she says they'll run a "geospatial analysis" of the sites -- in other words, charting changes in well water quality against distance the from drilling sites. The Duke researchers' work has come under fire for its small sample size, and for its lack of baseline water samples from drinking wells before fracking took place nearby.

Hunt says they're going to address those issues by sampling from 100 or more wells, and hope to collect some baseline water samples too. "If we can find people that have not had fracking in their area, but are about to, that would be the gold mine for us," Hunt says.

Hunt says their project is also unique because of a relatively quick and cheap early screening technique they're using for the samples, testing water with bioluminescent phytoplankton -- like the stuff that Tom Hanks says saved his life in Apollo 13 -- which dims when it's exposed to contaminated water.

While Hunt says she and the rest of the team, Brian Fontenot and Zacariah Hildenbrand, will be footing the bill for their trips out to well sites -- "we're kinda like rogue researchers," she says -- San Deigo-based Assure Controls is giving the researchers free use of a small biosensor product to run those early tests.

Like a smoke detector, Hunt says, it'll let them know which samples need further testing. It's a technique that was used to map the contamination in the gulf after last year's BP oil spill, Hunt says, and they're hoping to prove it's a viable way to test water samples around gas drilling sites too. "You don't have to know what you're looking for," Hunt says. "If we get a hit with this, we're going to use the comprehensive chemistry."

From there, Hunt says they'll test not only for methane, volatile organic compounds, and chemicals that drilling companies have disclosed they're using at nearby wells. While Texas' fracking chemical disclosure requirements won't take effect until next summer, some Texas drillers have already disclosed some of the chemicals they use at fracfocus.org.

Hunt says it's easy to argue about environmental policy when there's just a little bit of published scientific work about an issue. "People will always say there's not enough. And here we have this particular question, and there's nothing," Hunt says. "Hopefully we can help a little bit with that concern."

If you're interested in participating in the study Hunt says you can call 817-823-7302, or email the team at txwellstudy@gmail.com.

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