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Energy Team to Test Water near Marcellus Drilling Site in Westmoreland County

Beaver Run Reservoir sign. It reads 'Capacity 11 Billion Gallons. Constructed in 1950.' Courtesy of www.flickr.com/photos/frank27shelli/

A team of faculty members has been awarded a contract by the Municipal Authority of Westmoreland County Board of Directors to conduct water sampling around the 1,300-acre Beaver Run Reservoir and plans to place test results on a website available to the public.

The Beaver Run Reservoir spans Salem, Bell, and Washington townships and supplies drinking water to 150,000 residents.

IUP’s faculty-led Energy Team undertakes projects that address various aspects of energy development including Marcellus shale and conventional natural gas exploration. The Beaver Run project is the first fee-for-service contract the team has secured that taps the expertise of faculty members across several academic departments.

“One of IUP’s strengths involves water-quality sampling and testing to assess environmental changes and potential impacts to streams, creeks, and lakes,” Tracey Missien, interim director of Workforce Education and Economic Development, said.

Missien explained that IUP presented the proposal for services as a result of involvement by Dr. Brian Okey, associate professor in the Geography and Regional Planning Department, who has served on a water committee for the Municipal Authority of Westmoreland County.

“The authority wanted to engage an independent third party to conduct water sampling due to the drilling of horizontal Marcellus gas wells adjacent to the reservoir,” Okey said. “We were able to formulate a very comprehensive services proposal that successfully addressed the need of the authority to be vigilant about monitoring and protecting the water source.”

Initially, water-sample collection from streams and tributaries around Beaver Run will involve faculty members and students from the Department of Geography and Regional Planning and the Department of Geoscience.

Students will collect samples from designated sites throughout wooded areas around the reservoir. Once the samples are collected, analysis and data recording will be done in IUP’s Chemistry and Geoscience departments.

Dr. Nate McElroy, Chemistry professor, and his students will conduct several analyses of each sample to determine the presence and amounts of various salts and metals.

“A few readings will be conducted on site as each sample is collected, but the majority of analyses will be done in our labs at Weyandt Hall within a few weeks,” McElroy said. “We expect to find normal levels of naturally occurring minerals and metals, but we will also test for materials that we don’t expect to find.”

Once the data is recorded by the Chemistry Department, it will be entered into a water-quality-data website being developed by Dr. Katie Farnsworth and Dr. Yvonne Branan, IUP geoscientists. Farnsworth and Branan’s role in the project will be to provide the authority and the public with easy access to the test results on an ongoing basis.

In addition to its benefit to the community, the project will serve as a learning opportunity for students.

“The Beaver Run contract gives us the opportunity to put several students to work on an applied Marcellus-related geographic information systems project that will provide important data for the community, and we are pleased to partner with the authority on this project,” Dr. John Benhart, professor and chairman of the Geography and Regional Planning Department, said.

It is also a topic of interest for faculty members.

“Faculty are very interested in these types of projects both as a community service and for research purposes, particularly because of the interest in Marcellus shale drilling,” said Steve Hovan, chairman of the Geoscience Department.

In November 2010, Dr. Susan Boser, associate professor in the Sociology Department, moderated a public forum for the municipal authority. The panel included drilling company executives and representatives from the Department of Environmental Protection and engineering firm Gibson-Thomas. Under the contract, IUP can also provide assistance with community outreach efforts.

More information is available by contacting Missien at 724-357-4082 or tmissien@iup.edu, or by visiting the Workforce Education and Economic Development website.