By Pittsburgh Business Times

The Hilton Garden Inn in Canonsburg, Pa., a popular spot for Marcellus Shale industry gatherings, hosted a different kind of natural gas conference Thursday night when a crowd of about 1,200 came to advise the Environmental Protection Agency on how it should conduct a study of the hydraulic fracturing process.

The federal regulatory agency announced in March it would undertake a new research effort to determine if hydro fracing â¿¿ the process of pumping millions of gallons of water, sand and chemicals thousands of feet into the ground to break up shale rock and release the gas trapped inside â¿¿ has any effect on drinking water quality.

⿿We⿿re asking you to give us data,⿝ said Robert Puls, the agency⿿s technical lead in the hydraulic fracturing study.

Puls indicated the EPA will look at the composition of frac fluids, the way it is maintained at the site, wastewater transportation and disposal, and the potential for naturally occurring substances in the shale to be brought to the surface during fracing.

In addition to a case study design, which would survey affected landowners and suspected contamination sites, Puls also stressed that the EPA wants to collaborate with natural gas drillers to test a frac site before, during and after the job is done, Puls said.

The majority of the 150 or so speakers, who each faced a giant digital timer set to count down their allotted two minutes, expressed concern about the potential of fracing operations to pollute water supplies. Many said they have seen it happen on their land. Pennsylvania and West Virginia residents shared stories of their farm animals dying from what they believe is polluted well water.

⿿What I would like the EPA not to lose sight of in this study is the large amount of withdrawals⿝ from local water reservoirs, said Cindy Rank, a member of the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy.

Dr. Charles Christen, with the Center for Healthy Environments and Communities at the University of Pittsburgh, urged the EPA to examine the potential of shale disturbance from fracing to bring to the ground radon, a naturally occurring radioactive element.

⿿We do not have research to understand⿝ if fracing is safe, he said.

Bryan McConnell, an environmental consultant for the industry, invited EPA officials to visit his 100 acre farm in Cecil Township where he said, ⿿Fracing impacts do not occur from responsible oil and gas operations.⿝

While industry proponents, such as Perry Harris of Halliburton, asked the EPA to adhere to a narrowly focused study goal â¿¿ the relationship between fracing and drinking water â¿¿ environmentalists and concerned landowners asked for a cradle-to-grave evaluation of the gas extraction process.

This was the EPAâ¿¿s third such meeting, following packed affairs in Denver and Houston earlier this month.

The agency will review the testimony provided to it and come up with a study design by October. It plans to begin the research in 2011 and have preliminary study results out by the end of 2012.

Copyright 2010 American City Business Journals

Copyright 2010