Sustained Outrage

Gas drilling damage I

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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.