ALLARM helps citizen groups—and one alumna—track fracking’s aftermath
by Michelle Simmons
April 3, 2012
Nancy Wottrich ’78 moved to northern Pennsylvania to get away from development; instead, she’s at the center of a natural-gas boom.
At about the midpoint of the half-mile gravel driveway to the home of Nancy Wottrich ’78 and husband Bruce McNaught, you begin to understand why, 10 years ago, they moved from bustling Bucks County, Pa., to the wilds of northern Pennsylvania. As you crest a rolling cornfield, twin shimmering ponds appear below you. Beyond, woodlands rise and dip, and rise again into the horizon. Tucked between field and pond is Wottrich’s solar home, its southwest-facing wall offering a daily, stunning view of the Endless Mountains Region.
“We came to find solitude,” says Wottrich, who co-owns M&W Environmental Consulting Services with McNaught. “When we first moved here, one of the things that I cherished about this place was that I could go out at night, and I could not hear any human sounds. Even during the day, you go out and you hear birds. In the summer, you hear frogs. The stars are incredible.”
Last summer, Wottrich and McNaught awoke to the sound of tractor-trailers rumbling in the field behind their house. “Right here next to us, they were developing a helicopter pad and staging area for seismic testing,” says Naughton. For weeks Wottrich’s family endured helicopters thundering overhead and explosions thumping underground.
The boom that is Marcellus Shale gas drilling had landed in their backyard.
“The whole gas thing started in earnest in 2009,” says Wottrich. A psychology major at Dickinson, Wottrich found her niche in teaching, later combining her love of nature with education and earning an M.S.T. in environmental studies at Antioch University. She’s become well-known in her community for her natural-history workshops and publications such as the Birder’s Guide to Susquehanna County.
Wottrich explains the arrival of gas-and-oil companies eager to tap into the largest natural-gas development region in the United States. Thanks to two relatively new technologies—horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing (or “fracking”)—drillers can now extract the tightly trapped gas in the 54,000-square mile Marcellus Shale region.
But fracking has proven controversial. The process requires millions of gallons of water drawn from local streams mixed with sand and a proprietary chemical cocktail to force fractures in rock nearly a mile below the surface. The process also produces flowback water, a briny soup stored on site and then transported to a treatment plant.
The possibility of waterway spills or groundwater contamination worries citizens and environmentalists alike. Not only are a significant number of drilling sites located in rural areas, but they also happen to be surrounded by the headwaters of major rivers and watersheds such as the Susquehanna, the Delaware and the Allegheny.
“You’re sitting on needles all the time, wondering when your own water is going to go bad,” says Wottrich. She points to nearby Dimock, a small town at the center of the fracking debate and the subject of the divisive film Gasland, which featured footage of residents setting their tap water on fire. Eleven families are part of a lawsuit against Cabot Oil & Gas Corp., claiming that their wells are contaminated despite Cabot’s tests to the contrary. In January, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency agreed to investigate.
Science to the Rescue
Meanwhile, many residents and organizations aren’t waiting for government or industry. “So many people want to take science into their own hands,” says Candie Wilderman, Walter E. Beach Distinguished Chair in Sustainability Studies, professor of environmental science and founder and science director of Dickinson’s Alliance for Aquatic Resource Monitoring (ALLARM). “There’s a trust gap between residents and the state agencies and industry.”
In 2010, in response to community calls for help, ALLARM developed a water-monitoring protocol for volunteers interested in tracking potential contamination. Developed by Wilderman, ALLARM assistant director Jinnie Monismith and Dickinson students, the protocol teaches volunteers how to detect contamination in small streams by monitoring chemical, physical and visual indicators. Volunteers also send samples to ALLARM for quality control and baseline analysis of barium and strontium, two chemicals that may signal contamination.
So far, ALLARM has held a total of 30 workshops—in Pennsylvania, New York and West Virginia. “We’ve done training for school teachers,” explains Katie Tomsho ’12, an environmental-studies major who began working with ALLARM her sophomore year. “We worked with watershed groups and with PASA [Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture].” The conservation organization Trout Unlimited also partnered with ALLARM to provide training for its Pennsylvania membership.
The workshops are valuable for everyone—no matter where they stand on the drilling debate, says Leah Smith, member services manager for PASA. “Our membership has a range of opinions and experiences,” she explains. “The biggest concern is that things are happening in a safe way, that people have some sense of control and understanding.” Smith adds that one PASA member went on to train her Boy Scout troop.
“To be the most effective, you can’t be biased one way or the other,” says Tom Carugati ’11, a political-science and French double major who worked for ALLARM and is now with the Delaware Riverkeeper Network. “One of the things I enjoyed the most was empowering communities and individuals with scientific knowledge. It’s a bottom-up approach. It’s interacting with the community, informing them about policies and issues from a science background.”
Last year, ALLARM received a $185,000 grant from the Colcom Foundation in Pittsburgh to expand workshops to western Pennsylvania. The grant helps fund not only the workshops but the monitoring equipment as well. Each kit costs about $140, a significant expenditure for smaller volunteer-based organizations.
The drilling boom has elicited a need for information like nothing the 25-year-old organization has experienced, says ALLARM director Julie Vastine ’03. “We’ve had a shift in priorities,” she says. “We go where the need is.” Because the protocol requires extensive hands-on training and follow-up support, Vastine is hiring more students and adding a third full-time staff member to the team this year.
Vastine notes that the key to ALLARM’s ability to provide assistance is its network of partnerships, such as the Sierra Club, Delaware Riverkeeper Network, the Mountain Watershed Association and the West Virginia Water Research Institute. “We’re thankful for the widespread acceptance of our work, our great network of partners and the ability to disseminate resources to communities that need them,” she says.
One Stream at a Time
Once a week, Wottrich and her son Evan visit a section of Snake Creek about three miles from their house and follow the protocol she learned at an ALLARM workshop last spring hosted by the E.L. Rose Conservancy. “We’re looking for total dissolved solids and conductivity as indicators of frack fluid in the water,” she explains. “It’s also based against the flow rate of the stream.”
It’s a long-term commitment. Should Wottrich discover anything unusual, she’ll have the data to back up her findings.
Although the drilling issue has become personal for her, she does her best to remain objective—she’s a scientist, or a natural historian, at heart. “I recognize that there are benefits from gas drilling for local communities and the country, but at what cost to the environment and our health?” Wottrich asks with a rueful smile. “There’s all this gas under us, and industry is telling us that they’ll be here for the next 50 years. So what’s the rush? Let’s do this responsibly. Let’s make sure that they’re using the highest level of environmentally sound technology that exists. Let’s work together.”