Gas Firm Plans to Drill Again in National Forest

Morgantown Dominion Post
14 July 2011
By The Associated Press

MORGANTOWN, W.Va.-- The president of a Clarksburg gas company that inadvertently killed a tiny patch of the Monongahela National Forest by legally dousing it with drilling wastewater said he will eventually drill again in the nearly million-acre forest, but he'll do things much differently.

David Berry said the "very unfortunate" death of ground vegetation and trees on a quarter-acre in part of the forest set aside for long-term research was a learning experience for Berry Energy, the U.S. Forest Service and West Virginia regulators.

Never before, Berry said, had his company been restricted to spraying its treated hydraulic fracturing fluid to just a quarter-acre of land.

"If I was more aware of what would happen, I would have fought them tooth and nail," he said of the 2008 incident.

"But we've never been restricted before. ... We've never had this kind of experience."

Berry's well in the Fernow Experimental Forest was the subject of a Forest Service report. He said he supports the author's suggestion that the state Department of Environmental Protection change the decades-old rule allowing land application of fracking fluid from conventional gas wells.

Currently, the state allows the land disposal of fracking fluid as long as it has been treated to meet certain limits for sodium, chloride and other materials. But federal researcher Mary Beth Adams said the state should consider more than just the concentration of the solution. She argues it should also consider a minimum area of land on which to apply the fluid. That kind of "dose-based" formula could prevent the kind of deadly overdose the Fernow experienced.

Berry's company has drilled more than 300 wells and land-applied the wastewater since the practice was first permitted in the mid-1980s. He said he has always used much larger areas than the Fernow required in its well-intentioned attempt to protect the rest of the forest. It limited disposal to just a quarter-acre.

"The key is having enough real estate," Berry said. "We're probably looking at at least two acres."

The DEP has banned land application of fracking fluids from the deeper, unconventional Marcellus Shale wells that are now proliferating across the state, and that ban is included in new emergency rules signed by Senate President Earl Ray Tomblin, acting as governor.

Whether the DEP will change the rules for conventional drillers is unclear. Spokesman Tom Aluise said Wednesday the DEP is currently reviewing the general permit that covers land application.

"We would consider changing our land disposal standards if our review dictates a change is necessary," he said.

Adams' report documenting Berry's activities in 2008, printed in the current issue of the Journal of Environmental Quality, outlines the consequences of spraying 75,000 gallons of fracking fluid on a quarter-acre.

Within a few days, all ground vegetation was dead. Within 10, leaves on the hardwoods began to brown. Within two years, more than half of the 150 trees were dead, and sodium and chloride concentrations in the soil were 50 times higher than normal.

Berry Energy also drilled through three caves in the porous limestone Karst formations that underlie the forest, the report said. Known for sinkholes, caves and streams that sink underground, the Karst formations are fragile environments for rare and threatened creatures, from salamanders to the endangered Indiana bat.

Berry, whose company holds the mineral rights to 7,000 acres under the forest and a nearby wilderness area, said the need to bypass the Karst was another lesson of Fernow.

"We learned that the risk of drilling through limestone and communicating with any cave system is just too great," he said. Though the 2008 job didn't affect any springs, "we're not going to take that chance again."

Berry Energy has identified two formations that it believes could support four to six wells. When those areas will be developed, however, depends on several factors, including gas prices.

When he drills again, Berry said he will push back against any attempt to dramatically restrict the size of the land disposal site. The company typically considers not only the size of the site before spraying, he said, but also temperature, moisture and other conditions that can influence the stress on vegetation.

Berry also said his company posted a $30,000 bond before it started work in Fernow and has since fully repaired the roads it damaged.