MDN In-depth: New Peer Reviewed Study Supposedly Shows Dangers of Fracking Fluid to National Forests

A new “peer reviewed” article in the Journal of Environmental Quality is sure to set the anti-drillers afire with new “ammunition” that hydraulic fracturing may well mean the end of civilization. Invoking images of moonscapes, here is a press release from Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) announcing the publication of an article from one of their members:

A new study has found that wastewater from natural gas hydrofracturing in a West Virginia national forest quickly wiped out all ground plants, killed more than half of the trees and caused radical changes in soil chemistry. These results argue for much tighter control over disposal of these “fracking fluids,” contends Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER).

The new study by Mary Beth Adams, a U.S. Forest Service researcher, appears in the July-August issue of the peer-reviewed Journal of Environmental Quality. She looked at the effects of land application of fracking fluids on a quarter-acre section of the Fernow Experimental Forest within the Monongahela National Forest. More than 75,000 gallons of fracking fluids, which are injected deep underground to free shale gas and then return to the surface, were applied to the assigned plot over a two day period during June 2008. The following effects were reported in the study:

  • Within two days all ground plants were dead;
  • Within 10 days, leaves of trees began to turn brown. Within two years more than half of the approximately 150 trees were dead; and
  • “Surface soil concentrations of sodium and chloride increased 50-fold as a result of the land application of hydrofracturing fluids…” These elevated levels eventually declined as chemical leached off-site. The exact chemical composition of these fluids is not known because the chemical formula is classified as confidential proprietary information.

“The explosion of shale gas drilling in the East has the potential to turn large stretches of public lands into lifeless moonscapes,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, noting that land disposal of fracking fluids is common and in the case of the Fernow was done pursuant to a state permit.  “This study suggests that these fluids should be treated as toxic waste.”

For the past twenty-five years, the Forest Service has not applied any environmental restrictions on private extraction efforts, even in wilderness areas. As a result, forests, like the Monongahela, which sits astride the huge Marcellus Shale gas formation, have struggled with many adverse impacts of widespread drilling. By contrast, the nearby George Washington National Forest (NF) has recently proposed to ban horizontal drilling, a practice associated with hydrofracking, due to concern about both the ecosystem damage and also the huge amount of water required for the fracking process. Two subcommittees of the House of Representatives will hold a joint hearing this Friday to examine the George Washington NF’s singular pro-conservation stance.

“Unfortunately, the Forest Service has drilled its head deeply into the sand on oil and gas operations harming forest assets,” Ruch added, noting the National Wildlife Refuges also lack regulations to minimize drilling impacts. “The Forest Service needs to develop a broader approach than asking each forest supervisor to cast a lone profile in courage or cowardice.”*

MDN would like to make a few points…

  1. This was an experiment to see what would happen, not an accident, and certainly not something routinely done. Let’s be clear, NOBODY IN THEIR RIGHT MIND spreads untreated fracking fluids on the ground as a method of disposal. No drilling companies do it. So right away, the entire “study” conclusions are in doubt because it’s proving that you don’t want to do something that nobody is doing anyway. Brilliant stuff here.
  2. MDN would like to propose the following study to Ms. Adams: Take 75,000 gallons of untreated, raw sewage from any municipal sewage plant in the country and perform the same test. That is, use raw sewage before anything is done to treat it, with all of the chemicals that are flushed down the common household toilet—take that and spread 75K gallons of it around on 10,890 square feet, which is 1/4 acre (about the same size as a small lot in a subdivision). Prediction: You’ll get the same results as spreading 75K gallons of untreated fracking fluid.
  3. Invoking images of lifeless moonscapes is cheap emotional straw man argument. Again: No one spreads untreated fracking fluid on the ground. So how, exactly, will there be lifeless moonscapes when fracking fluid is either recycled or treated at a certified facility?
  4. The fact that this study appears in a “peer reviewed” journal means precisely nothing. There are many examples of peer reviewed articles hailed when they were published and later found to be fallacious.
  5. And so, with no science to speak of, the release ends in politics, as these things always do. “George Washington National Forest might ban it, why don’t the dunderheads at the Forest Service do the same?” That’s the childish tone it ends with.

Watch for this so-called peer reviewed article to be highlighted in 400-500 news outlets across the country. And just like the inaccurate Cornell study and the inaccurate Duke study which preceded it, this study will be debunked. But you won’t read any retractions in the same 400-500 media outlets.

*PEER Press Release (Jul 7, 2011) – Fracking Fluids Poison a National Forest