Mock spill illustrates potential impact of wastewater leak
Bright green water swirled around Mariah Airey’s boots as it made its way into Black Moshannon Creek.
A freshman at State College Area High School, Airey watched as green dye trickled down a tributary, mixed with the clear water in the creek and then rushed downstream.
A group of State High students recently participated in a mock spill event simulating what might happen if a contaminate spill reached the stream.
“When it reached Black Mo, it surprised me how far it went,” Airey said. “I thought my eyes were deceiving me.”
Airey and her classmates are part of TeenShale Network, a group of high school students working with Penn State scientists to monitor water quality in local streams around Marcellus Shale development.
Penn State researchers and Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection staff placed environmentally safe dye in the creek to help the students visualize what might happen if a truck hauling wastewater from a Marcellus Shale well site crashed and spilled its contents.
“There are a series of wells up on the hill, and trucks carry brine from the production of shale gas out of this watershed to treatment facilities,” said David Yoxtheimer, a research assistant in Penn State’s Earth and Environmental Systems Institute. “We set the stage that a brine truck rolled over and spilled some of its brine into the creek.”
Brine, or wastewater, from a Marcellus Shale well can contain high concentrations of salts and metals that had been trapped deep underground with the natural gas. Drillers pump large amounts of water into wells during hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” and what returns to the surface is wastewater.
For the past five years, TeenShale members have monitored sections of Black Moshannon Creek for impacts of natural gas drilling. They collect water samples for testing at Penn State, and later analyze data looking for potential environmental impacts.
“The results are just like you are actually doing something to answer a real-world problem,” Airey said. “That’s what I really like about this. It’s not just something that we need to check off our list to get through the year, it’s something that is a question that’s always evolving and changing and the answer is not going to be in our book.”
More recently, the group has been studying possible environmental impacts of an old, abandoned oil well in Centre County. That work is part of a larger project at Penn State to identify so-called orphaned and abandoned wells. Estimates place the number of those wells in Pennsylvania in the hundreds of thousands.
Through the TeenShale project, Penn State researchers have taught students to use professional field equipment and comb through the data they collect to tell stories about what’s happening to the environment. The students have presented their results at professional conferences, like a Geological Society of America conference in Pittsburgh.
“The conference in Pittsburgh was really cool,” said Emily Lieb, a senior at State College Area High School. “We were able to talk to professional scientists and not only get introduced to their careers and areas of study, but also to say, ‘wow, look we can do this too. We can present with other actual scientists, because we are scientists.’ That was cool to see.”
Lieb, who has participated in the project for four years, said her experiences encouraged her to pursue science in college.
“It’s taught me that science is a collaborative process and that it changes,” Lieb said. “We are always looking for new questions and new answers.”
TeenShale Network has received funding from the National Science Foundation and an Environmental Protection Agency Environmental Education Grant.