Major Research Gaps in New Utica Shale Air Quality Study

by Seth Whitehead, Energy in Depth

The authors of a recent study finding elevated polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon (PAH) levels near shale natural gas wells in Carroll County, Ohio, have admitted the sample size used for their study was too small and the chief assumption used for their research model was “totally impractical,” according to multiple media reports.
But those admissions haven’t kept media outlets from producing headlines such as: “Fracking may cause air pollution, respiratory issues,” and “Fracking could increase risk of cancer, new study finds.”
Here are the five things you need to know about this new report:
Fact #1: Volunteers recruited and “trained” by anti-fracking activist group
According to the report, “trained” volunteer property owners took samples on low-density polyethylene strips from passive air samplers on 23 properties in Carroll County, and sent them back to researchers in Oregon “in airtight polytetrafluoroethylene bags with Clip N Seal assemblies.” Those volunteers just happened to be solicited by anti-fracking activist group Carroll Concerned Citizens (CCC), which is part of the Frackfree America National Coalition. As the researchers state in their acknowledgements, they’d like to thank:
“Paul Feezel of Carroll Concerned Citizens, all for assistance with volunteer recruitment and communication.”
If that sounds familiar it’s because CCC was also heavily involved in a recent air emissions study spearheaded by an international anti-fossil fuel organization called Global Community Monitor (GCM). In that particular study, CCC was one of the 12 community organizations that took air samples in buckets lined with plastic bags in the Ohio area. However, as EID pointed out, GCM and CCC’s methods have been found to be scientifically unsound. And, as EID’s recent whitepaper pointed out, this study was actually one of the reports that was used to justify the ban on fracking in New York. Not only was it conducted by GCM in partnership with CCC, it was also peer reviewed by well-known anti-fracking activists, including Sandra Steingraber, who happens to be the co-founder of New Yorkers Against Fracking. Notably, none of these affiliations were disclosed, which goes against at least four different codes for scientific research.
Fact #2: Employs extremely small sample size; does not use random testing
As you probably learned in your junior high science classes, sample size is essential to the scientific method of proving a hypothesis, as explained on the University of Minnesota website.
“Scientists have to use a large enough sample size to accurately test a hypothesis…”
An Akron Beacon Journal report had this to say about how the researchers described their sampling method to them:
 … the number of air samples collected by researchers from the University of Cincinnati and Oregon State University is too small to determine the risk from the hydrocarbon-based compounds, and additional testing is recommended. There is just not enough evidence to determine if the air pollutants are an issue of big concern or a health threat, they said.
An unbiased random selection and a representative sample are also important in drawing conclusions from the results of a study, and in this report the researchers make no bones about the fact that their sampling method was anything but random. From the report:
Sampling sites were on the private property of volunteer landowners. As a result, datado not represent a completely random sample of the population, and statistical inferences are only relevant to the portion of the population that was sampled.”
The researchers even prefaced their findings at an April meeting in Carroll County by saying the results were “not statistically significant,” according a landowner in attendance, who emailed EID with this information. But that didn’t keep them turning around and using the results as if they were legitimate.
Fact #3: Does not account for the fact elevated PAH levels could come from wood and coal burning
The researchers noted that they tried to place their samplers away from chimneys and roads. But the reality is that in the dead of winter in a rural area such as Carroll County, families heat their homes with wood and coal, two significant contributors to PAH emissions according to theEPA.
It is also likely that Carroll County residents were burning more wood and coal to heat their homes than is typical back in February 2014, considering it was one of the coldest winters the state’s ever had. While the researchers did mention wood burning, they immediately dismissed it:
“Wood burning is another common source of PAHs in air. Retene is a PAH that is commonly used as an indicator of biomass combustion, especially in wood. Interestingly, average retene levels did not show the same trend as other individual PAHs across distance groups. Rather, average retene levels were comparable across distance groups.”
Coal burning, though significant in the area, was not mentioned at all in the report.
Fact #4: ‘Worst case’ scenarios were assumed
The researchers argue that their findings show there could be a slight increased risk for cancer, an additional two cancer cases for each 10,000 people. And that estimate is based on the assumption that PAH levels never change and that a person lives in the same location for 25 years and stays in that location 24 hours a day, seven days a week. According to the Akron Beacon Journal, the authors conceded that this standard is actually “totally impractical.”
As the press release issued by the researchers themselves explains, these numbers were worst-case estimates and cannot be used to predict the risk to any particular individual: “these models assume some very big things.”
It is only in the study’s maximum exposure scenarios (24 hours a day, seven days a week) that PAH levels exceed accepted EPA standards.
Fact #5: Ignores enormous amount of research finding no credible health impacts
The researchers base their assessment on what they term the “majority of scientific literature” – including debunked studies such as McKenzie et al., Adgate et al. and Colborn et al., among others.
Yet, they completely ignore numerous studies that have found no credible health impacts from shale development. For instance, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) has conducted extensive monitoring and found that there’s no credible threat to public health from shale-related activities.  In fact, TCEQ’s months of testing in the Barnett Shale area showed “no levels of concern for any chemicals.” TCEQ added that “there are no immediate health concerns from air quality in the area.”
The Colorado Department of Public Health also installed air quality monitors at a well sites andfound that concentrations of benzene “are well within acceptable limits to protect public health,” and that “concentrations of various compounds are comparatively low and are not likely to raise significant health issues of concern.”
The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection took air measurements in northeast Pennsylvania, and the agency “did not identify concentrations of any compound that would likely trigger air-related health issues associated with Marcellus Shale drilling activities.”  The Pennsylvania DEP also looked into wells in southwest Pennsylvania and concluded that they “did not detect levels above National Ambient Air Quality Standards at any of the sampling sites.”
A peer-reviewed study looking at cancer incidence rates in several Pennsylvania counties found “no evidence that childhood leukemia was elevated in any county after [hydraulic fracturing] commenced.”
A report from the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection concluded that “no additional legislative rules” were required to protect public health with respect to hydraulic fracturing activities.
report commissioned by Fort Cherry School District in Pennsylvania, which studied air emissions at a well site in Fort Cherry School District came to the conclusion that the samples “did not show anything remarkable with respect to chemicals detected in the ambient air. When volatile compounds were detected, they were consistent with background levels measured at the school and in other areas in Washington County. Furthermore, a basic yet conservative screening level evaluation shows that the detected volatile compounds were below health-protective levels.”
Further, there’s a reason Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Gina McCarthy has touted how natural gas development is leading to cleaner air. As she has said,
“The pollution that I’m looking at is traditional pollutants as well as carbon. And natural gas has been a game changer with our ability to really move forward with pollution reductions that have been very hard to get our arms around for many decades.”
To sum up, the study’s volunteers were spearheaded by a known anti-fracking group; the report completely ignores the likely higher-than-normal emissions from other sources; and, the researchers even admit that their work is “not statistically significant” because their sample size was too small and not random. Instead of garnering headlines promoting fear, the report should be notable for its glaring gaps in research.
UPDATE (5/20/2015; 12:20 pm ET): EID was recently contacted by a Carroll County landowner, Keith Williams, who volunteered his property as a sample site for the air quality study addressed in this post.
Williams’ property sits more than 10 miles away from the nearest shale gas well – at least seven miles farther away from shale gas wells than the other 23 sites in which samples were collected for use in the study (each of which was 3.2 miles from shale gas wells or closer).  Yet, his PAH readings were some of the highest collected.
Remember, the study claims to show that polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon (PAH) levels “decrease as samplers get farther away from NGE wells” so Williams’ results do not exactly fit in with the narrative.
That’s not all: the PAHs the researchers deemed most dangerous, which they linked directly to shale gas production – phenanthrene and benzo (a) pyrene – were detected at high levels on Williams’ property. Williams’ phenanthrene levels (120 nanograms per meter cubed) were greater than the average of those detected in the “middle” distance (96 ng/m3) from shale gas well category (1.0 miles or less from shale gas well).  They were also higher than all but three of the samples used in the study, despite being at least three times farther away from shale development than the sites used for the study.
Williams’ benzo (a) pyrene levels were in between the average range detected in the “middle” and “far” groups of the study (2.3 ng/m3) despite being at least three times farther away from shale gas wells than the other properties.
And Williams’ property had higher levels of a vast majority of each of the 32 PAHs detected in the study, including the highest fluorine, dibenzothiophene,  and acenaphthene levels, and the second highest dimethylnaphthalene and demethylnaphthalene levels.
These facts punch all sorts of holes in the researchers’ claims that proximity to shale gas development directly correlates to increased levels of PAHS, particularly PAHs that have been deemed harmful by the researchers.
For the results of the testing on Williams’ property, click here.

Copyright Energy in Depth. Reprinted with permission. View original article here.

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