Energy. Environment. Economy.

Study Finds Little Evidence of Water Contamination from Fracking

Kim Paynter / WHYY/

Cows graze within sight of a drill rig in Lycoming County, Pa.

The Penn State University study monitored more than 200 drinking water wells near Marcellus Shale gas drilling sites for an 18 month period. Researchers say the sites ranged over 20 counties, and did not show a statistically significant link between shale gas drilling and methane contamination.

What the study did show was that between 20 to 25 percent of the wells tested for methane showed the presence of gas before any drilling occurred. The concentrations of the gas were low, and the research concluded that the methane occurred naturally.

Originally, researchers did report finding higher levels of bromide in private drinking water wells. They connected it to drilling, not to the fracking process. But they have since attributed the high levels of bromide in all but one well to lab errors. Bryan Swistock is a water specialist at Penn State, and led the study. Swistock says no wells tested for bromide before drilling.

“It indicates that there needs to be broader research to find out where it’s coming from,” said Swistock.

He says bromide is not a health hazard on its own. But when combined with some disinfectants, it can be harmful. Swistock says they also tested for up to 18 chemicals, including barium, chloride, and sulfate. But the tests did not reveal elevated levels of anything except bromide.

Swistock acknowledged the study included a relatively small number of sites, over a short period of time.

The study was conducted by Penn State’s College of Agricultural Sciences and funded by the Center for Rural Pennsylvania and the Pennsylvania Water Resources Research Center. The state legislature funds the Center for Rural Pennsylvania, and the U.S. Geological Survey supports the Water Resources Research Center.

Swistock says he did not want to take any funding from either industry or environmental groups.

“This is the first project to provide an unbiased and large-scale study of water quality in private water wells…both before and after the drilling of Marcellus gas wells nearby,” said Swistock.

Swistock, like many researchers looking into Marcellus Shale drilling, is concerned about accusations of bias.

Penn State did not randomly select the wells. Instead, researchers asked for the participation of residential well owners. Swistock says despite detailed tests, many residents did not know how to interpret their water test results.

“We found a lot of pre-existing problems,” said Swistock. “It really indicates a need for education.”

Penn State will seek funding to continue to monitor the wells.


  • Julieann Wozniak

    The study should have been conducted by an institution that is NOT receiving bales of cash from the industry. Those of us who live around hydrofracturing and have seen our communities do not trust Penn State, or PADEP. I have a science degree and know firsthand that test results can be fudged to fit a pre-ordained conclusion. there was a huge scandal about this at WVU back in the day.

    • JG

      re-read the article.  Then tell me who paid for the study.

    • Sphillips

      Hi Julieann, although Penn State researchers have taken industry money for some studies related to Marcellus Shale, the researchers in this study did not. PSU’s recent report on job creation related to shale drilling was funded by the industry group, the Marcellus Shale Commission. But Swistock was pretty clear in the interview that he did not want to use industry funding, for the very reason you cited. –Susan Phillips

  • Christine Mora Breakstone

    What about monitoring/studying downstream from the brine treatment plants where they dump the water from the fracking process?

  • Aislinn E. Pentecost-Farren

    Why does the title claim there was little evidence of water contamination from fracking when the article states that though there was no connection found between fracking and methane levels in the wells, there WERE elevated levels of bromide and the presence of other chemicals after fracking? 

    Methane is perhaps a more sensational contaminant to report on (ie, exploding houses and flaming faucets) but carcenogenic chemicals are just as dangerous, and the consequences on health will be more difficult to get gas companies to pay for because they happen over the long-term.

    • ABC

      Their study included sites where wells were drilled but not hydrofractured and those that were.  Nearly all the sites with bromide increases were drilled but not yet hydrofractured.  It matters for trying to figure out how it’s happening.

    • Susan Phillips

      Hi Aislinn, the researchers say they found no statistically significant changes in well water after fracking. They did, however, find changes after drilling, which has to happen before a well is fracked. What they found was elevated levels of bromide, nothing else. The study says bromide by itself is not dangerous. But when combined with chlorine, it can be carcinogenic. — Susan Phillips

  • Brian Kessler

    Penn State has recently begun its “Marcellus Shale Education & Training Center.”  Students going to the Penn Tech campus will be trained for gas industry jobs.  The school received $5 million grant for this project.

    I really think this fact has a huge bearing on the credibility of the school’s study. This should have been mentioned in the story.

    PSU Alum

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