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U.S. Forest Service study: Fracking wastewater decimated West Virginia forest

A new study by a U.S. Forest Service researcher found that the application of hydrofracking wastewater to a forest in West Virginia did enormous damage to the forest ecosystem, killing all ground plants and many trees.

Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility reports on the study’s findings:

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.”

Though this was a legal discharge under WV regulations, most fracking wastewater is not disposed of in this way; it is typically either held in holding ponds (the picture at the top of this file is one such pond) or injected into deep wells to keep it away from surface waters. But the study does illustrate what would happen if there was an accidental spill or if one of those holding ponds leaked into the ground or burst and flowed into surface waters.

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