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Civil society research and Marcellus Shale natural gas development: results of a survey of volunteer water monitoring organizations

An Erratum to this article was published on 22 January 2014


This paper reports the results of a survey of civil society organizations that are monitoring surface water for impacts of Marcellus Shale development in Pennsylvania and New York. We argue that enlisting volunteers to conduct independent monitoring is one way that civil society organizations are addressing knowledge gaps and the “undone science” of surface water quality impacts related to gas extraction. The survey, part of an ongoing 2-year study, examines these organizations' objectives, monitoring practices, and financial, technical, and institutional support networks. We find that water monitoring organizations typically operate in networks of two main types: centralized networks, with one main “hub” organization connecting many chapter groups or teams, and decentralized networks, consisting primarily of independent watershed associations and capacity building organizations. We also find that there are two main orientations among water monitoring groups. Roughly, half are advocacy-oriented, gathering data in order to improve regulation, support litigation, and change industry behavior. We characterize the other half as knowledge-oriented, gathering data in order to protect natural resources through education and awareness. Our analysis finds that many monitoring programs function relatively independently of government and university oversight supported instead by a number of capacity building organizations in the field. We argue that this reflects neoliberal tendencies toward increased public responsibility for environmental science. We also find that new participants in the field of water monitoring, mainly large environmental NGOs integral to the operations of centralized networks, are shifting monitoring programs towards more advocacy-oriented objectives. We believe this shift may impact how civil society water monitoring efforts interact with regulatory bodies, such as by taking normative positions and using volunteer-collected data to advocate for policy change.

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  1. No comprehensive information source on these groups existed at the time of the study beyond partial lists, which in many cases were also outdated or no longer supported. For example, author correspondence with the EPA in September 2011 confirmed their directory is not actively managed internally and relies on self-reporting of monitoring groups.

  2. In order to protect the privacy of participating groups, only a subset of civil society organizations are mentioned by name herein. Privacy preferences were determined during the survey process.

  3. For example, the ALLARM protocol (2012) guide volunteers to note “very high concentrations of the indicator and signature chemicals in flowback water [TDS average of 10,000 mg/L] in comparison to water quality criteria in PA [TDS averages of 500 mg/L].”

  4. Numerous additional monitoring groups have formed only in the last 12 months and are currently beginning field collections. Many of these emerging groups, such the Sierra Club's Atlantic Chapter Water Sentinels program, are located in New York State where, at the time of this paper, a moratorium remains in place against hydraulic fracturing. The newest groups were not included in the survey, but will be the subject of follow-up research.


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Correspondence to Kirk Jalbert.

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Jalbert, K., Kinchy, A.J. & Perry, S.L. Civil society research and Marcellus Shale natural gas development: results of a survey of volunteer water monitoring organizations. J Environ Stud Sci 4, 78–86 (2014).

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