New Study Details Changes in Soil Chemistry and Devastation of Trees and Plants

Monongahela National Forest entry sign. forestcamping.comContact: Kirsten Stade (202) 265-7337
6 July 2011

Washington, DC — 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.”

Fracking Fluids Poison a National Forest


ABSTRACT: In June 2008, 303,000 L of hydrofracturing fluid from a natural gas well were applied to a 0.20-ha area of mixed hardwood forest on the Fernow Experimental Forest, West Virginia. During application, severe damage and mortality of ground vegetation was observed, followed about 10 d later by premature leaf drop by the overstory trees. Two years after fluid application, 56% of the trees within the fluid application area were dead. Fagus grandifolia Ehrh. was the tree species with the highest mortality, and Acer rubrum L. was the least affected, although all tree species present on the site showed damage symptoms and mortality. Surface soils (0–10 cm) were sampled in July and October 2008, June and October 2009, and May 2010 on the fluid application area and an adjacent reference area to evaluate the effects of the hydrofracturing fluid on soil chemistry and to attempt to identify the main chemical constituents of the hydrofracturing fluid. Surface soil concentrations of sodium and chloride increased 50-fold as a result of the land application of hydrofracturing fluids and declined over time. Soil acidity in the fluid application area declined with time, perhaps from altered organic matter cycling. This case study identifies the need for further research to help understand the nature and the environmental impacts of hydrofracturing fluids to devise optimal, safe disposal strategies.

Mary Beth Adams, Land Application of Hydrofracturing Fluids Damages a Deciduous Forest Stand in West Virginia

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