His models estimated that industry's fracking will speed up the movement of those chemicals, reducing travel times for the same distance from thousands of years to 100 years. When Myers factored in natural faults and cracks in the underground rock, fluids could travel 10 times faster than that.
The fastest travel times occurred when man-made fractures intersected with natural faults, with the study finding under those conditions that "contaminants could reach the surface areas in tens of years, or less."
Also, the study found, forces from hydraulic fracturing can continue for nearly a year after the actual fracking is completed. This could mean chemicals left underground are continuing to be pushed away from the drill site long after the actual drilling is done. Restoring the natural balance of the pressure systems underground could take up to six years, the study said.
The nonprofit journalism organization ProPublica, which has extensively covered the debate over the natural gas boom, was the first media outlet to report on Myers' findings.
ProPublica said that "several scientists called Myers' approach unsophisticated" and that assumptions Myers used in his models didn't accurately reflect what is known about the Marcellus Shale's geology.
Terry Engelder, a Penn State geologist who has been a proponent of shale drilling, told ProPublica that if fluids could flow through the Marcellus as quickly as Myers argues, fracking wouldn't be needed to free up gas deposits.
"This would be a huge fracture porosity," Engelder said. "So I read this and I say, 'Golly, does this guy really understand anything about what these shales look like?' The concern then arises from using a model rather than observations."
Myers noted that there is little hard data on exactly how underground fluid flows are impacted by hydraulic fracturing, and recommended that more information be collected before and after drilling to allow for more concrete studies.
"There is no data to verify either the pre- or post-fracking properties of the shale," Myers wrote, "... But there are almost no monitoring systems that would detect contaminant transport as considered herein. Several improvements could be made."
Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kw...@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.