Wastewater from hydraulic fracturing (fracking) operations poses a serious threat to national forests, according to a researcher from the U.S. Forest Service. Mary Beth Adams conducted a two year study  of soil and vegetation health in West Virginia after more than 75,000 gallons of fracking wastewater were applied to a portion of forest set aside for research.
The study, appearing in the July-August issue of the peer-reviewed Journal of Environmental Quality , tracks the effects of fracking wastewater on a quarter-acre section of the Fernow Experimental Forest in the Monongahela National Forest. Adams monitored the effects of the land application over a two-year period.
Within two days, the contaminated fluids had killed all ground level plant life and within 10 days began to brown the foliage of trees. Within two years all of the trees showed signs of damage and more than half of the 150 trees in the test area were dead. The study notes a dramatic 50-fold increase of sodium and chloride in surface soil after the application, but, because the chemical composition of fracking wastes is protected as proprietary information, the full contamination effects could not be studied.
According to Adams, the case study demonstrates the need for further research to understand the full effects of fracking and fracking waste disposal.
The whistleblower group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) argues that the study results demonstrate the need for tighter control over fracking fluids and wastes. “This study suggests that these fluids should be treated as toxic waste ,” said PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch. “The explosion of shale gas drilling is the East has the potential to turn large stretches of public lands into lifeless moonscapes.” Ruch adds that historically the Forest Service “has drilled its head deeply into the sand on oil and gas operations harming forest assets.”
U.S. Forest Service scientists and researchers like Adams previously tried to intervene in unconventional gas exploration in the Fernow Experimental Forest, warning of potential long term environmental damage and harm to endangered species. According to a PEER investigation , Forest Service officials downplayed the specialists’ findings and blocked their attempts to gain legal advice from the Office of General Counsel. PEER called for an official review of the decisions made by the Forest Service, calling into question the office’s relation to private industry interest.
Despite the shocking results, Adams’ report may not have the impact it warrants. Mitigating the impacts of waste water disposal should be "high priority" according to Adams, but there is little to suggest official bodies like the Forest Service are prepared to step in. In the past 25 years the Forest Service has not placed any restrictions on private extraction , even in wilderness areas. The Forest Service, says Ruch, insists on adopting a “don’t ask, don’t tell” approach to issues like the environmental impacts of gas exploration.
Photo Credit: Charleston Gazette