Gas drilling damage I

March 11, 2009 by Ken Ward Jr.

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Yesterday, I blogged about serious questions raised by the group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility about a gas drilling and pipeline operation in the Fernow Experimental Forest section of the Monongahela National Forest. We’ve also got a more detailed story in the paper today, and it’s online here.

The blog post includes links to some of the documents that PEER cited in alleging that managers at the U.S. Forest Service ignored their own staff scientists’ advice that the operation proposed by Berry Energy would damage caves that are critical habitat for endangered bats, create toxic runoff, and harm long-term forest ecology.

Posted above is a photo PEER sent me of this drilling operation, and I’m also posting  a shot they also provided of the vegetation damage apparently caused by toxic materials from the drill pit fluids.

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In other documents provided by PEER, and posted on the Gazette’s Web site here,  Forest Service employees who inspected the Fernow site described the damage this way:

There are one to maybe two dozen trees, mostly smaller ones, immediately adjacent to the well pit on the lower west side, and a few above the well pad, where the foliage is brown, and indeed on the lower west side, there is little to no ground vegetation.

At a casual glance it appears that the area was burned, but there’s not really any charring to support that … 

Those documents also identify what might have occurred:

Inspection of the B-800 well site on 5/30/08 documented an event that occurred on 5/29/08 in which Halliburton lost control of the well while attempting to remove a frac plug in the deeper part of the well bore.

Halliburton had pressurized the well bore with water containing compounds to aid in the removal of the plug when the pressure forced the flow line to disconnect, ejecting well bore contents  into the atmosphere as a mist that fell and deposited primarily within the well site opening. Leaf burn and wilting was observed on nearby vegetation as soon as the day after the event.

Forest Service officials examined Material Data Safety Sheets for the chemicals involved, and found:

Based on the compounds and concentrations, it would appear that the leaf burn that occurred was due to caustic characteristics of some of the compounds. For example, several of the compounds contains salts, and one of the compounds was tallow soap, or lye. Although none of the compounds were used in high concentrations, it is possible that under the bright sunny conditions present at the time, these concentrations were sufficient to create leaf burn on contacted vegetation.

Three Forest Service scientists had warned Michael Raines, director of the agency’s Northern Research Station, which oversees Fernow, about just these kinds of concerns.  But the Forest Service approved the drilling anyway.

I tried to reach Raines yesterday, and he never returned a phone message I left with his assistant. I did get a call back from a Forest Service PR person, Susan Toomey, who wanted to know what my questions were. On stories like this, I generally don’t like to get PR people a list of questions. In my experience, it just generated a prepared, e-mail response that  doesn’t really answer any of the questions. So I told Toomey I wanted to talk to Raines about the Berry Energy drilling project — he would absolutely know what I was referring to — but I never heard back from Raines or Toomey.

Today, PEER also posted on its Web site a confidential legal opinion from Interior Department lawyers (who represent the Fish and Wildlife Service, the agency charged with enforcing the Endangered Species Act), who concluded that the Forest Service had clear legal authority to take additional steps to mitigate any potential damage the this drilling operation.

PEER warns that many  of the national forests in the East, including congressional mandated wilderness areas and research forests, have privately held mineral rights. They’ve provided a list of these sites here.  And, PEER cautions:

For decades, the Forest Service has held that no environmental restrictions apply to private extraction efforts. This stance, however, has put the agency right in the middle of litigation from both environmental and industry on an extensive oil and gas drilling program in the Allegheny National Forest in Pennsylvania. [Read stories about the Allegheny drilling by my friend Don Hopey at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette here and here].

In December, the Forest Service announced that it will finally consider adopting rules to curb abuses in drilling and mining operations.

Jeff Ruch, executive director of PEER, said:

The reason the Forest Service keeps getting sued is that it insists on adopting a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ posture even when the problems are patently obvious.

Ruch noted that President Obama pledged last week that “The work of scientists and experts in my administration…will be respected” and Ruch commented:

If the Forest Service is going to move forward as a science-based research agency, it is important that the managers on this forest, the regional office and headquarters who responsible for this state of affairs be identified and removed.

10 Responses to “Gas drilling damage I”

  1. a bunch of methane says:

    Ken – the real story is how U.S. Fish and Wildlife turned a blind eye for months before this started. Why? Get to the bottom of that.

  2. Ken Ward Jr. says:

    A bunch of methane — If you have some information about that, share it with the rest of us…don’t just make unsupported allegations. Ken Ward Jr.

  3. George Monk says:

    Berry Energy’s well report filed with the state’s Office of Oil and Gas shows that 3,500 gallons of 15% HCl acid was used in fracturing the Oriskany formation, along with sand and water and the fracturing chemicals mentioned above. Without analysis it’s hard to tell exactly what caused the leaf burn and wilting, but generally fracturing flowback is acidic. For this well a total of about 100,000 gallons of water was used for fracturing the two formations and 4,500 gallons of 15% HCl acid.

    The document that you provide a link to seems to also indicate wildlife death in the pit. State regulations require a fence around the pit but I’ve seen a pit with the fence knocked down. The document also has a memo that states “you keep on saying there isn’t any salt.” The Discharge Monitoring Report for the Berry well filed with the state shows a chlorides level during landspraying of 6,210 mg/l. 7,500 mg/l is an ounce per gallon, roughly equivalent to 2 level teaspoons per gallon of water. I’d hate to use that on my houseplants.

    Thanks!

  4. a bunch of methane says:

    http://www.peer.org/docs/fs/02_19_09_Interior_Solicitor_opinion.pdf

    There’s your link to FWS. Clearly they knew something was up, but methinks it is the reporter’s job to ask why FWS was non-responsive. Did they let MNF know about the contents of this letter prior to drilling? If not, why not? If they did, why did MNF proceed?

  5. Ken Ward Jr. says:

    Bunch, (Can I call you Bunch?)

    Yes. I’m familiar with that document — if you read the post you commented on, you’ll see that it is referenced there, and there’s a link to it:

    \Today, PEER also posted on its Web site a confidential legal opinion from Interior Department lawyers (who represent the Fish and Wildlife Service, the agency charged with enforcing the Endangered Species Act), who concluded that the Forest Service had clear legal authority to take additional steps to mitigate any potential damage the this drilling operation.

    Now, I don’t think the document supports your allegation that the FWS did nothing…it is simply the FWS passing on to the FS after the fact a legal opinion that indicated more could have been done.

    As best I can tell from the available documents, the FWS raised these concerns with the FS before the drilling, and the FS ignored them. See this document:
    http://www.peer.org/docs/usda/03_11_09_FS_meeting_notes.pdf

    And also see the way PEER described the situation in its letter to the IG:
    http://www.peer.org/docs/usda/03_11_09_IG_request_re_Monongahela_NF.pdf

    Now, I’m not saying you’re wrong. Perhaps there is more to this story and the FWS deserves some criticism. I’ll certainly explore the issue, and see what I can find out.

    But the document you reference does not support your allegations.

    Ken.

  6. bunch of methane says:

    Ken – your timeline is wrong and yes you can call me that. Most call me something worse! The DOI legal opinion (the memo from the lawyer to Barbara Douglas) was from early winter 2008 prior to B-800 being drilled. FS never consulted officially or informally – and I’m betting they (FS) claims total ignorance about the DOI opinion. And if USFWS, despite being told by their lawyers that ESA was an applicable regulation, never “officially” notified FS or made any attempt to, why did they not? B-800 was then drilled a few months afterwards. Was there a quid pro quo deal struck with FS in that USFWS would lay low for some reason. Regulatory agencies don’t look the other way without a reason. Did it have something to do with workloads on project clearances for other issues? Was the fox allowed, albeit briefly, in the henhouse? Word is that FS employees have been at USFWS OK-ing activities on behalf of USFWS to ease their regulatory workload. If the action agency is doing the approving on behalf of the regulatory agency, well……. I would put that question (and others) to the former field office director, Tom Chapman. And let’s say for argument’s sake that USFWS did, in those preceding months, alert FS that there was possible ESA implications. If that is true, and based on what the Gazette reported were the findings of FS specialists, how come the MNF Forest Supervisor didn’t hold up on the project or seek consultation? Seems a bit “un” risk averse for a government bureaucrat these days.

  7. Ken Ward Jr. says:

    Bunch,

    I’ve been called much worse as well.

    Thanks for your comments.

    Yes — the DOI legal opinion was from earlier in 2008 — and then the document you refer to includes it, with a cover letter that indicates that the legal opinion was provided to FS much later in the year that it was actually written.

    What I’m saying is that if you look at the meeting notes I provided the link to, it appears the substance if the legal opinion — if not the document itself — was provided during meetings by the FWS to the FS. At least that’s my reading of those notes.

    Now, that doesn’t entirely answer your very good question: Why didn’t the FWS do more? I don’t know. But I will most definitely try to find out.

    Ken.

  8. bunch of methane says:

    I think you’ll see that the FS meeting notes are from the after the well was drilled – then USFWS was saying what needed to be done on the next round of wells. USFWS got caught not doing their job so they changed their tune. But so what? B-800 was in without so much as a peep from them. If a pre-B-800 deal was not struck between USFWS and FS, then USFWS simply didn’t care or didn’t want the responsibility of regulating an action that they thought (including their lawyers) that FS should have done more with. The private property angle scared them all, so much that they kept on running past their responsibilities. Had this been a fully federal action with little outside ramifications, USFWS would have been all over it.

  9. bob says:

    I’ve been advised many times as an USFWS employee by superiors that our Law Enforcement Officers have to find a dead body of an ESA listed species (for example a dead Indiana bat) on-site to even begin criminal cases against anyone, and even if a dead body of a T/E species is found criminal prosecution is not certain to occur. In my opinion, former USFWS field supervisor Tom Chapman could have done a much better job protecting and conserving T/E species and their habitats while he had the ability to do so, however, his authority buckled under the pressure of his superiors in our Regional Office.

  10. cj says:

    Leaving your house in the morning carries risk…should we ban that? Or driving a car….or switching on your light bulb. We could sit on the gas for a mellenia and then become the OPEC of the next century. But when we are trying to cut back but just about every other developed or developing country won’t, we are putting ourselves at a competetive disadvantage. But at least we’ll feel good about ourselves as our wind and solar powered armorment fails and we are overthrown.

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