Update on Monongahela National Forest Study – an MDN Correction

More details have come to light since MDN first reported on the new study published in the Journal of Environmental Quality about land application of fracking fluids in the Monongahela National Forest (see here). The press release about the published study was issued by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). The release did not mention that the land application was authorized by the WV DEP as part of an ongoing drilling operation and not simply an intentional experiment. MDN does not knowingly distort the facts and is happy to “set the record straight” for any errors we publish. In that spirit, we offer this additional information about the 2008 land application incident and resulting published study:

In 2007, Berry Energy Inc. of Clarksburg began drilling a conventional, vertical gas well in a section of the Fernow Experimental Forest, a part of the Monongahela set aside for research.

[Mary Beth] Adams said what unfolded over the next two years was an unexpected opportunity for observation.

Some results were expected, from deforestation and road damage to runoff and erosion. Others, including the dramatic die-off when wastewater was land-applied, were not.

Berry Energy didn’t immediately return messages Monday, but the report says that in June 2008, under a permit from the state Department of Environmental Protection, it sprayed 75,000 gallons of treated fracking fluid on the quarter-acre.

Adams said the Forest Service hoped to minimize damage and was only told afterward that the industry standard is to use a much larger area.

"We were surprised when the vegetation responded so quickly because we were told there would be no effect, ‘This is done all the time,’" Adams said. "And there was a very dramatic response."

Within a few days, all ground vegetation was dead. Within 10 days, the leaves of the hardwoods began to turn brown and drop. Within two years, more than half of the 150 trees were dead, and sodium and chloride concentrations in the soil were 50 times higher than normal.*

A few things come to light here: This was a conventional, vertical gas well that was hydraulically fractured (fracked). And the fluid was spread on a much smaller land area than is usually used—only 1/4 of an acre. Still, it’s obvious that land application of fracking fluid should never, ever be done. Period. MDN stated no one in their right mind would spread fracking fluid on the ground untreated. It appears some people are out of their minds! It just should not be done—unconventional (horizontal) wells, or conventional (vertical) wells. Fracking fluid needs to be treated before being returned to the environment.

In fact, land application of untreated or treated Marcellus Shale fracking fluid in West Virginia is illegal—and always has been.

Corky DeMarco, executive director of the West Virginia Oil and Natural Gas Association, said his members reuse as much fracking fluid as possible. What’s left largely goes to underground injection wells, not land application. And state law forbids the land application of fracking fluid of Marcellus wells, regardless of whether it’s been treated.*

*The Intelligencer/Wheeling News-Register (Jul 12, 2011) – W.Va. study raises questions about fracking fluid