A new academic study linking the amount of radon present in a home to its proximity to deep-shale oil and gas “fracking” wells cites Athens County as having the most of these wells in the state of Ohio, with 108.
There’s one problem with that statistic: Athens County does not have 108 deep-shale fracking wells. In fact, it has zero. The number of horizontally drilled fracking wells in some eastern Ohio counties shown on a map that’s part of the study also appears to be incorrect.
Mark Bruce, a spokesperson for the Ohio Department of Natural Resources’ Division of Oil and Gas Resource Management, said Friday that the agency is working with the University of Toledo researchers who performed the radon/fracking study “to get their numbers right.”
It's unclear whether correcting the numbers of deep-shale fracking wells in the study will alter the conclusions of the study.
Since early last week, coverage of the UToledo study has been all over the web, with authoritative research, professional and science websites such as ScienceDaily, The Science Times, Phys.Org and Engineering 360 trumpeting its results. Most repeat some version of this paragraph early in their articles: “From the distribution, most of the fracking wells are located in eastern Ohio, while Athens County has the highest number of fracking wells…”
The study, called “Impact of the Hydraulic Fracturing on Indoor Radon Concentrations in Ohio: A Multilevel Modeling Approach,” recently was published on the website of the journal Frontiers in Public Health. Three researchers at the UToledo, one in its Department of Geography and Planning and two in its Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, authored the study. For radon data collection data used in the study, the researchers had funding from the Ohio Department of Health and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
On the various websites where the study has been reported or summarized, Dr. Ashok Kumar, distinguished university professor and chair of the UToledo Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, is quoted saying, “The shorter the distance a home is from a fracking well, the higher the radon concentration. The larger the distance, the lower the radon concentration.”
According to the study, the UToledo scientists geocoded 118,421 homes in all 88 Ohio counties between 2007 and 2014, and documented how close the homes were to any of 1,162 fracking wells in the state.
That total number of fracking wells, as stated in the UToledo study, also is wrong, according to Bruce of the ODNR.
He told The Athens NEWS Friday morning that the UToledo study gave incorrect numbers for the overall number of deep-shale fracking wells in Ohio (more than 2,600, not 1,162); deep-shale fracking wells in Athens County (zero, not 108); and drilling in some other Ohio counties (for example, the study shows Carroll County southeast of Canton as having between 7 and 19 fracking wells; it actually has had “476 horizontal wells… drilled and hydraulically fractured,” Bruce said).
“We don’t believe these numbers (in the Toledo study) are accurate,” Bruce said. “We are working with them to get it right.”
He said the use of the term “fracking wells” could be confusing the issue, since the study makes it clear that when linking the presence of radon to fracking, it’s talking about oil and gas wells that descend to the Marcellus and Utica shale formations, which commonly employ horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing. However, fracking can be used in more conventional vertical wells, too. In Athens County, the vast majority of oil and gas wells descend to Berea sandstone layer, which is much shallower than the Marcellus-Utica layers. The vertical Berea wells aren't the ones that the UToledo study links to radon.
(While Athens County has no horizontally drilled fracking wells, it does have a number of deep-shale oil and gas waste injection wells, which present their own environmental problems.)
When the study was released last week, Bruce explained, “we immediately reached out to the University of Toledo to share some of our concerns related to the number of wells cited in the study. The researchers responded, indicating they were going to review their procedures used and get back in touch with us. The Division is ready to help the authors utilize and analyze oil and gas well data so that cited information is presented accurately because currently the Division is confident it is not.”
ASKED ABOUT THE DISCREPANCIES in fracking-well numbers, professor Kumar acknowledged in an email Friday receiving a communication from ODNR’s oil and gas division earlier this week, stating that the agency’s website is updated monthly and shows where wells have been drilled in both the Marcellus and Utica/Point Pleasant formations (the formations listed in the [UToledo] report)… “These wells have all been hydraulically fractured and drilled in the formations specifically mentioned by the researchers,” the ODNR division’s email stated, adding, “As you can see, the number of wells drilled is closer to 2,600, and none have been drilled in Athens County.”
When asked whether those incorrect numbers might raise questions about the study’s overall conclusions, Kumar replied that he and his researchers are “checking all the available files used in the analysis...
“Once we do the analysis,” Kumar added, “we will be able to say if our findings should be revised or should we clarify the paragraph on the choice of the wells.”
Bruce from the ODNR said that no one from the oil and gas division was consulted during the development of this study. “So we can’t explain how or why the data was presented in the way that it was,” he said. “Accuracy is arguably the most critical component of any research study, and that’s why the Division reached out to the University of Toledo as soon as we did to help offer our expertise in ensuring that correct information is presented and used by the researchers. We’re hopeful we’ll be able to help them obtain more accurate information and that this information will be distributed as the original report was.”
He said the ODNR’s division of oil and gas has a Radiation Protection section that’s also reviewing results of the study.
“The Division is looking forward to the opportunity to work with the University of Toledo researchers to help them understand what data we have and how to accurately analyze and use it in their research,” Bruce said. “Fact-based science is the foundation of our regulatory program, and we strive to help members of the scientific and academic community perform research using strong science and correct information.”
IN ADDITION TO THE FINDINGS linking radon to nearby fracking wells, the UToledo study found that the average radon concentrations among all tested homes across Ohio are higher than levels designated safe by the U.S. EPA.
"We care about air quality," Yanqing Xu, assistant professor in the UToledo Department of Geography and Planning, said in a prepared release. "Our motivation is to save the lives of Ohioans. I hope this eye-opening research inspires families across the state to take action and have their homes tested for radon and, if needed, install mitigation systems to protect their loved ones."
Xu is listed as one of the three UToledo professors who authored the study.
Radon, an odorless, invisible gas, starts as uranium found naturally in soil, water and rocks, but turns into a radioactive gas as it decays.
Fracking, or shattering the shale formation via hydraulic fracturing, unlooses natural gas and oil from rock cavities deep underground.
The UToledo study states, “According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency (U.S. EPA), long-term exposure to radon causes lung cancer, and there are about 21,000 lung cancer deaths every year in the United States.”
A 2015 research study in Pennsylvania found that “unconventional natural gas development” was among several factors “associated with indoor radon concentrations.”