Thursday, December 5, 2013

Forensics with Foresight

When we talk about forensics, we’re usually talking about investigating events in the past: analyzing DNA evidence found at the scene of a crime, reconstructing a traffic accident to discover the cause of a collision, assessing accounting systems to determine culpability in the aftermath of fraud, or sampling a groundwater plume to determine the source of contamination; ultimately, the analysis is occurring ex post facto. So instead of reacting to events, what if scientists sought to anticipate the needs of their field? For example, what if scientists began applying the analytical tools we currently have with an eye toward future litigation in the environmental arena?

In the video below, Dr. Frank Dorman, Professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at Penn State, discusses the application of one such analytical tool, multidimensional gas chromatography time of flight mass spectrometry (GC-TOFMS) to hydraulic fracturing. His talk highlights both the challenges as well as the advantages of separation science in the context of contaminated water and forensics and its applicability to the courtroom. Dr. Dorman demonstrates the visualization capabilities of GC-TOFMS that allow it to make distinctions as to the source of the contamination (wastewater from conventional oil and gas or Marcellus Shale gas), and ultimately who is the responsible party.

While Dr. Dorman’s analytical techniques are still a work in progress, this kind of science potentially allows lawyers, judges and juries without specialized scientific knowledge to separate fact from fiction when it comes to determining the responsible party.  We’ve written about key issues associated with Marcellus Shale before, but we haven’t discussed it in the arena of applied forensics and expert witnessing.  By developing the analytical capabilities now the science will be ready if and when disputes arise that need resolution.

Submitted by Kate McMahon, Research Associate

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