16 July 2011
Woodland Mortality from Land Application of Waste Hydrofracturing Fluid
Posted by John Freeland
The latest issue of the Journal of Environmental Quality contains a peer-reviewed research paper documenting the effects of flowback hydrofracturing fluid on a wood lot. The results reported in Land Application of Hydrofracturing Fluids Damages a Deciduous Forest Stand in West Virginia (Mary Beth Adams, USDA Forest Service Northern Research Station in Parsons, WV) indicate the effects of a June 2008 “frack water” dosing were swift and noticeable. From Adams:
During land application of the hydrofracturing fluids, field personnel observed damage symptoms on ground vegetation (herbaceous vegetation, small trees, shrubs), including browning and wilting of foliage, leaf scorch and curling, and leaf drop. Within a few days, almost 100% of ground vegetation within the perimeter of the fluid application area had died.
Within 7 to 10 d, overstory trees began showing similar damage symptoms, and many of them dropped their foliage, as evidenced by a large amount of green leaves on the forest floor. Leaf fall mass was estimated to be 714 kg ha−1, or about one quarter that recorded in a normal autumn leaf fall…
In late spring 2009, 51% of the trees within the perimeter had no foliage. By summer 2010, 2 yr after fluid application, 56% of the trees within the fluid application area were dead.
In the hydrofracturing process, water is typically mixed with sand and chemicals, including proprietary ingredients, then injected into shale formations. When successful, the high-pressure injection increases permeability and releases natural gas. After injection, most of the fluid flows back to the ground surface. This “flowback” water picks up additional dissolved and suspended “souvenirs” from its journey under ground, notably salts.
Adams concludes that high concentrations of sodium and calcium chlorides likely caused the damage to the trees and understory during the Forest Service experiment. The proprietary chemical ingredients of the fluid, however, and other potential contaminants derived from of the well cuttings are unknown. The study didn’t include a thorough, and expensive, chemical assay.
The problem with disposing brines in a forest is osmotic stress. The salts leach into the soil and cause osmotic pressure that deprives the roots of normal water uptake. The trees respond to what resembles severe drought by shedding leaves. Leaves contain stomata (stomates) that release water vapor during photosynthesis. Dropping leaves is a water conservation strategy.
Because the leaves need water to carry on photosynthesis, and the roots need photosynthate (products) normally sent down the phloem from the leaves, the tree starves. In the Adams experiment, American beech (Fagus grandifolia) had the highest mortality, while red maple (Acer rubrum) was less affected.
West Virginia, Colorado, and Arkansas, according to Adams, allow land disposal of hydrofracturing fluid. The initial salt and iron concentrations, and pH of the fluid used in the study described here met the conditions required to obtain a land disposal permit from the State of West Virginia.
Bottom line, a permit is no guarantee of protection and the environmental regulations pertaining to hydrofracturing need some improvement.
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I worked in the oil fields when I was a young man. After fracking a well we would shut in the well for a few days to let the sand settle out and prop up the formation. When we let the well normalize it would spit a cloud of fine mist and spray over the area, anything living that the mist touched would die in a week or so, if the well had failed to get a good crack, the returning volume would ruin the surface area for decades. Policy then was to open the well on the weekend when the state people were off work. This was the early 80s.
This kind of first-hand knowledge is badly needed and should be brought forward so that it can be addressed. The problem you describe is technical and seems like it would require a fairly simple fix to capture the mist. Thanks for the comment, sir.
The oilfield is run by outlaws. They give lip service to what the law requires but do what they want. The regulators are funded by drilling fees so they are captured by the people who fund them, it is all about the money. I’ll see if I can get you a standard drilling lease. Look up ALOVE on Google, they have a landowner friendly lease to look at online. The lease determines if they can rape your land, the law could care less.