Forest Service Ignored Concerns About Drilling

Published on
by
The Charleston Gazette (West Virginia)

Forest Service Ignored Concerns About Drilling

by
Ken Ward Jr.

CHARLESTON, W.Va. - A private gas drilling and pipeline project in the Fernow Experimental Forest threatened an underground cave system that shelters endangered bats, created toxic runoff and damaged long-term forest ecology, according to a report from the group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility.

U.S. Forest Service officials approved the project, despite grave concerns expressed by the agency's staff scientists about impacts on the Fernow, according to documents released by PEER.

The Fernow, located in the Monongahela National Forest near Parsons, is used for research on growing trees and on better ways of timbering.

PEER filed a complaint Tuesday with the inspector general of the Department of Agriculture, which oversees the Forest Service, over the Fernow incident.

"The Monongahela offers a textbook example of how drilling should not be done on a national forest," said PEER executive director Jeff Ruch. "Unless the inspector general intervenes, we will see more train wrecks like what occurred on the Monongahela National Forest when the price of natural gas begins to rise again."

According to documents released by PEER, Berry Energy in 2007 filed a permit to drill on the Fernow in a location referred to as B-800.

Forest Service experts were concerned that the project would harm critical cave habitat of the endangered Indiana bat. But Forest Service managers did not allow for formal consultation with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on the issue, according to the PEER documents.

Scientists in the Forest Service were also concerned about potential damage from toxic materials in the "pit fluids" created by the gas drilling.

Forest Service staffers - all Ph.D. scientists - complained about these issues to Michael Rains, director of the agency's Northern Research Station, which oversees the Fernow.

The three scientists - Mary Beth Adams, W. Mark Ford and Thomas M. Schuler - warned that approving the drilling would violate several sections of the federal Endangered Species Act.

A private gas drilling and pipeline project in the Fernow Experimental Forest threatened an underground cave system that shelters endangered bats, created toxic runoff and damaged long-term forest ecology, according to a report from the group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility.

U.S. Forest Service officials approved the project, despite grave concerns expressed by the agency's staff scientists about impacts on the Fernow, according to documents released by PEER.

The Fernow, located in the Monongahela National Forest near Parsons, is used for research on growing trees and on better ways of timbering.

PEER filed a complaint Tuesday with the inspector general of the Department of Agriculture, which oversees the Forest Service, over the Fernow incident.

"The Monongahela offers a textbook example of how drilling should not be done on a national forest," said PEER executive director Jeff Ruch. "Unless the inspector general intervenes, we will see more train wrecks like what occurred on the Monongahela National Forest when the price of natural gas begins to rise again."

According to documents released by PEER, Berry Energy in 2007 filed a permit to drill on the Fernow in a location referred to as B-800.

Forest Service experts were concerned that the project would harm critical cave habitat of the endangered Indiana bat. But Forest Service managers did not allow for formal consultation with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on the issue, according to the PEER documents.

Scientists in the Forest Service were also concerned about potential damage from toxic materials in the "pit fluids" created by the gas drilling.

"We also believe that the Monongahela National Forest conducted inadequate assessments and analyses for this project relative to known and potential impacts on soil, water and wildlife resources," the Jan. 22, 2008, letter to Rains said.

Rains did not return a phone call Tuesday afternoon.

But PEER found documents indicating that the drilling pit fluids may have leached out and killed more than two dozen nearby trees.

"There are one to maybe two dozen trees, mostly small 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," according to an e-mail message Adams wrote and PEER obtained under the Freedom of Information Act.

Also, Forest Service staffers asked that the agency seek expert legal advice from its Office of General Counsel on the issue before going along with the drilling proposal. Forest Service managers refused.

PEER is especially concerned about Forest Service procedures for reviewing drilling proposals, because many of the national forests in the eastern U.S. have privately held mineral rights.

In West Virginia, residents are expressing growing concern about toxic pollution from drill pit fluids, and legislation has again been introduced to try to give surface property owners more rights in dealing with drilling companies that own gas deposits under their homes.

Share This Article

More in: