The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

Balancing Act

February 25, 2011

Has natural gas disaster already happened?

While many of the effects of the gas industry’s entrance into West Virginia remain to be seen, some residents are noting plenty of damage has already been done.

In addition to multiple natural gas well explosions that have killed several workers, other impacts of the industry are also making a mark on the state.

The Fernow Experimental Forest, a large tract of land in West Virginia, was an unaltered hardwood forest used as a scientific control group to compare to forests that had been altered by human activity. In 2001, a gas development company leased the privately owned minerals under the federally owned property.

In the summer of 2007, a National Park Service publication states, a pipeline was installed and a right of way was cleared after

confirming the presence of gas. Researchers using the area predicted damage as a result of the clearing and construction of the project. It was what they did not predict that surprised researchers.

Researchers attributed damage from drilling and hydrofracking fluids to the felling or killing of about 1,000 trees. Land application of some of the wastewater also browned nearby vegetation.

Frank Gilliam, a plant ecologist and professor at Marshall University, said the tract of land has now been altered and compromises a section of the Fernow Experimental Forest for use as a control.

“Well, that’s now being altered by the existence of the well,” Gilliam said. “So, the data we collect is going to be less reliable. It’s like an archive. This watershed is an ecological archive. The way things would be if we didn’t alter anything, now that is being altered by the well.”

There was no major accident at the well site. The effects described by the National Parks study were the result of a standard drilling operation, Gilliam said.

The high salinity of the wastewater, Gilliam said, has heavily affected plants in the region.

“It’s heavily laden with sodium chloride, basically salt,” Gilliam said. “They are finding a very substantial and notable increase in sodium ions and chloride ions in the water and the soil.”

Some species of plants wouldn’t be as affected by the high concentrations of salt, but they aren’t typically found in West Virginia.

“There are plants that are adapted to high levels of sodium chloride (salt), like when you go to the beach, but we’re talking about West Virginia hardwood forests — they don’t see much seawater,” Gilliam said. “So they aren’t adapted to much higher levels of sodium chloride.”

When those levels become too high, it begins to have an intense effect on a plant’s ability to survive. Additionally, Gilliam said, stream impacts from the fluid are also substantial.

“Stream ecosystems are very sensitive to these kinds of effects,” Gilliam said. “Fish communities, especially salamanders and amphibian communities, are highly affected by all that.”

The damage that can be caused to a stream was more evident at Dunkard Creek in September 2009.

It is not currently evident whether coal mine discharges, fracking fluid or some other factor caused the mass death of fish along 43 miles of stream near the West Virginia-Pennsylvania border. Dr. Tom Jones, an environmental scientist at Marshall University, explained that frack fluids introduced into an ecosystem, through underground fractures, spills or runoff, could cause similar damage.

Used fracking fluid can contain up to 20 percent salt water, much higher than even levels of seawater, Jones said.

“When you are drilling and injecting this fluid under high pressure, if there is a natural crack present, some of that fluid passes along those natural fractures,” Jones said. “Where those come back to the surface may or may not be direct route.

“The increased salinity of the water makes an environment in which golden algae blooms can occur. Golden algae, a plant typically found in the Gulf states, was found to be the cause of the massive fish kills.”

“This algae, as it’s losing nutrients, has a trick to get new nutrients,” Jones said. “It actually produces a toxin, a really powerful one. It kills everything in the water with it. It kills fish, mussels, salamanders, anything in the water basically dies.”

Jones speculated there was a “fair likelihood” that the algae could have even be introduced by oil or gas companies, who may have brought the algae. The algae is common in states, such as Texas, where natural gas and oil industry has been developed.

Some of the golden algae, Jones said, was even found in Paint Creek, a tributary of the Kana-wha River. If it were to reach a major water system and spread, the effects could be devastating.

The increased toxins make the water unbearable, Jones said. At Dunkard Creek, salamanders crawled onto rocks and died in the sun to escape the water.

“It was a near complete loss of more than 30 miles of stream, which is pretty significant,” he said.

Jones said illegal dumping and accidental spills of fluids used by the natural gas industry are also a major concern.

“Some of these truck drivers may think to themselves, ‘Do I drive 45 minutes one way on this curvy road to get rid of this water?,’” Jones said. “Or is it, ‘It’s 4 o’clock on a Saturday. Do I just back my truck around to this pond and dump the truck there?’”

Jones said the number of trucks on the road containing potentially damaging material increases the risk of environmental exposure.

“You have hundreds of thousands of those trucks on the roads,” Jones said. “Someone is going to dump illegally or have an accident that will allow that water into surface water, where it can have extreme impacts.”

West Virginia media outlets have reported spills of brine from natural gas companies onto roadways in several instances. WTOV9 reported that a Brooke County spill iced more than three miles of road after the driver failed to realize the truck had sprung a leak.

WTOV9 reported that “crews didn’t know all of the chemicals they were dealing with, so they took every precaution possible.”

The source of contamination of Buckeye Creek in Doddridge County is easier linked to the natural gas industry. According to a report from the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection, Louanne Fatora placed a call to the DEP to report a “quarter-inch thick gel on top of the creek.”

Fatora described what she witnessed in a letter to then-Gov. Joe Manch-in.

“We took flashlights down to our fishing hole, the acrid, oily smell of this red/orange gel met us almost up to the house,” she wrote. “I got it on my hands, the smell of which didn’t go away for some time despite repeated washing.”

She further reported finding dead animals in the creek over the past several years. She noted drilling activity took place in the area. Neighbors downstream had not been notified of the spill, and many reported witnessing the creek appear to be reddish in other instances.

Tapo Energy was identified as the potential source of the spill and was charged with cleaning up the creek. In its assessment of the creek, the DEP determined the creek had been restored to pre-spill conditions but did not know definitively if the site was entirely restored.

Unfortunately, it would be nearly impossible to declare the creek completely restored due to the insufficient pre-spill data and the vagaries of determining what are the ideal conditions in a body of water that is constantly changing.

The suspected source of the contamination was a conventional well. In their conclusion, the DEP noted it believes the discharge came from Tapo Energy’s drilling activity, but the evidence was not conclusive.

There was also concern that the spill may have washed contaminants into the local water system in West Union.

In late October 2009, Duane Reynolds, Chief of Water and Wastewater for the town of West Union, raised concerns over whether the material discharged into Buckeye Creek reached the water intakes at the West Union water treatment facility, which supplies public drinking water.

Reynold’s concern was based on finding elevated levels of iron and manganese during the facilities regular testing. The report concluded that there was not sufficient evidence to attribute the rise in manganese and iron to the spill.

“The discharge into Buckeye Creek was an unfortunate occurrence,” the report states. “The exploration and production of oil and natural gas does not have to come at the expense of our State’s other natural resources.  The Office of Oil and Gas is committed to the protection of our State’s waters, and continually reviews methods and practices to ensure that the exploration and production of oil and natural gas is undertaken in an environmentally sound manner.”

— E-mail: tkuykendall@register-herald.com

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