Tucked into a sleeping bag on the top of a hill in southern New York, Egan Waggoner watched as a stream of meteors flashed across the dark sky. A landowner had allowed Waggoner and his teammates to stay the night in her backyard in return for having her well’s water tested earlier that day. The next morning, he rose and roused the others after the family had gone to church, and they continued on to the next well.
Waggoner, an environmental science graduate student at the College of Environmental Science and Forestry, was part of a group of Syracuse University students who travelled across New York’s Southern Tier in August to sample well water on behalf of the SWIFT project, founded this spring by two Syracuse Earth sciences professors. SWIFT, which stands for “shale-water interaction forensic tools", intends to establish a baseline for water quality in southern New York before the state allows hydraulic fracturing, a process of extracting underground natural gas that some blame for groundwater pollution. The SWIFT team began analyzing the data from the summer’s samples a few weeks ago and plans to publish the information before the end of the year.
The tradeoff that often occurred between the SWIFT team and landowners — staying the night in return for testing wells — illustrates how Waggoner and the other team members were able to get to know the people who will benefit the most from SWIFT’s findings, which will be available to the public via an online database. For Waggoner, meeting landowners was the best part of the long road trips.
“We met a lot of really, really good people down there. That was one of the things that made the job worthwhile,” he said.
Still, the SWIFT team did encounter some skepticism and, in some cases, suspicion about the project’s motivations. Natalie Teale, an Earth sciences and geography senior who works on the project, described one man as “aggressively dissatisfied” after receiving SWIFT’s letter requesting to test his well. “He was just really suspicious of everything,” she said. “That’s kind of what all the misinformation has done to the public; it’s created a…lack of appreciation for the actual science.”
A number of universities have published studies about hydraulic fracturing that contribute to landowners’ confusion and, sometimes, suspicion about scientists’ motives, said Don Siegel, a Syracuse hydrogeology professor and SWIFT faculty contributor. “Because, ironically, I was from a university, there was a measure of distrust in the beginning. Universities are not trusted anymore as honest brokers,” he said. The public hears about some professors’ tendencies to “cherry-pick” data to prove a certain claim about hydraulic fracturing, Siegel explained, such as two Cornell studies that came to opposing conclusions about whether natural gas extraction contributes to global warming.
To alleviate landowners’ concerns, Siegel and Waggoner drove to Corning in August to meet with the Steuben County Landowners’ Coalition, one of the largest county coalitions in the state with 200,000 acres and 1,700 families. In a 2-hour meeting, Siegel outlined SWIFT’s scientific goals and its commitment to neutrality, explaining that Syracuse University is the project’s sole funder.
Once the landowners understood that SWIFT’s only goal was to collect scientific data, most were happy to participate. “We have no qualm with that as long as it’s not agenda-driven,” said Jeff Heller, chairman of the Steuben County Landowners’ Coalition. “We have no problem with that at all because it serves everybody’s purpose.”
SWIFT doesn’t charge for testing wells, so landowners receive for free what some private water analysis companies would price at around $1,000, said Waggoner. The project used most of its $19,300 seed money from the university to fund the road trips this summer, and has applied for more funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to test water after hydraulic fracturing begins in New York.
Linda Knowles, a Steuben County coalition member, said landowners were looking forward to having SWIFT visit again. Knowles had been one who had hosted Waggoner, Teale and other SWIFT scientists in her backyard.
“A lot of people signed up with Egan and his group, and we’ve had other people since then who said, ‘Gee, I wish they could test ours,’” she said. “If [the ban of hydraulic fracturing] does open up, I have people who have already said they want their wells tested, too.”