Another Fracking Study, Another Set of Confusing Headlines

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Can fracking pollute groundwater?

The jury's still out on this question, but a new study just came out linking hydraulic fracturing to mineral seepage into aquifers.

Because the research, conducted by Duke University scientists, connects fracking to natural mineral seepage -- not mining chemicals -- it doesn't do much to conclude definitively whether the process per se pollutes drinking water supplies.

Judging from the headlines, however, it would seem as if this study did make a case either for or against fracking's dangers -- with some media organizations flipping a shit and other media organizations voicing nonchalance.

ProPublica explains in a headline "New Study: Fluids From Marcellus Shale Likely Seeping Into PA Drinking Water."

Businessweek notes "Pennsylvania Fracking Can Put Water Sources at Risk, Study Finds."

And then there's Salon's "Confirmed: Fracking can pollute" with the subhead "A new study explodes the gas industry's claim that fracking won't contaminate local drinking water."

Contrast this with the New York Times' approach, "Fracking Did Not Sully Aquifers, Limited Study Finds."

The Wall Street Journal's Associated Press post also took this perspective, "New research shows no Marcellus Shale pollution."

Let's also not forget an outlet in Pittsburg, which warns: "Duke study suggests drilling fluid can seep up into water supplies."

So yes...hydraulic fracturing definitely pollutes ground water or definitely does not pollute groundwater, apparently depending on whom you ask.

If you're curious to know what the scientists actually said, though, you can read about it on Duke's website.

Their headline is neither sensational nor sexy, but sums up the research pretty plainly: "Marcellus Brine Migration Likely Natural, Not Man-Made."

What does that mean, you might ask?

Well, the rock formation's natural characteristics might have let salts and gasses from the Marcellus Shale trickle into drinking water supplies.

As Duke geochemistry professor Avner Vengosh put it: "This is a good news-bad news kind of finding."

"The good news, he said, is that it's unlikely that hydraulic fracturing for shale gas has caused the elevated salinity. He said the locations of the samples containing brine don’t correlate with the locations of shale-gas wells. The results from the new study also are consistent with water-quality tests conducted in the aquifers in the 1980s before rapid shale-gas development began.

The bad news is that the geochemical fingerprint of the salinity detected in well water from the Lock Haven, Alluvium and Catskill aquifers suggests a network of natural pathways exists in some locations, especially in valleys. These pathways allowed gases and Marcellus brine to migrate up into shallow groundwater aquifers from deeper underground shale gas deposits.

'This could mean that some drinking water supplies in northeastern Pennsylvania are at increased risk for contamination, particularly from fugitive gases that leak from shale gas well casings,' Vengosh said.

Follow Victoria Bekiempis @vicbekiempis.

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