Hocking Hills State Park

Ohio’s state forest and parks represents a small percentage (about 3%) of the land mass in Ohio. For many people both in and out of state, our state lands act as a sanctuary for visitors to escape their hectic lives and find the peace that nature offers. It also provides a space for recreating, bird watching, fishing, hiking, biking and these diverse ecosystems act as an outdoor learning lab for students as well as adults.

Fracking and all the build-out that this industry requires will dramatically affect these ecosystems. To believe that one can conduct fracking and still sustain a vibrant, healthy forest ecosystem is ludicrous.

Additionally, the Halliburton loophole legislation of 2005 exempted natural gas drilling from most federal laws protecting the environment including the Safe Drinking Water Act. It exempts companies from disclosing the chemicals used during hydraulic fracturing. Essentially, the provision took the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) off the job. Fracking is virtually unregulated. Who will guarantee that every stage of the process will be conducted in a way so as not to disrupt the forest ecosystem?

Effects of fracking on plants

Our state parks and forests, especially those in Southeastern Ohio are home to many medicinal plants such as goldenseal and ginseng. These species have cultural and historical importance to people in the region. Some of these plants are listed under Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). Medical studies are proving their value as medicinal plants are more than anecdotal. Fracking has a dramatic effect on woodland plant species.

Fracking and the activities that support fracking such as infrastructure development (pipelines, well pads) would harm and even destroy these plants and their seed banks. A study conducted in the Fernow Experimental Forest in West Virginia showed that the forest ecosystem was affected by forest clearing, erosion, road building, and vegetation death from direct exposure to fluid spills and there was an increase in the white-tailed deer population. The forest composition is mixed mesophytic and one that readily supports shade-loving understory plant species.

Rover Pipeline construction, Belmont County, OH, 2021. By Ted Auch / FracTracker Alliance

Fracking wastes have been found to contain water soluble radionuclides that are brought to the surface via produced water. “Elevated levels of chloride and bromide, combined with strontium, radium, oxygen, and hydrogen isotopic compositions, are present in the Marcellus shale wastewaters.”

“Fluids from the drill pit were land-applied at two locations on the Fernow in June 2008, with nearly immediate impacts on vegetation. After the first fluid application site, many trees, shrubs, and understory plants showed immediate responses to the fluid application, with leaves turning brown, wilting, and subsequent leaf and bud mortality. We also observed that taller trees, whose leaves were not contacted by the fluids, also began showing decline symptoms about 10 days after the ground vegetation; these symptoms included leaf browning, leaf curling, and premature leaf drop. Premature leaf fall ranged from 227 to 1,395 kg ha-1, or about 10 to 45 percent of annual autumn leaf fall biomass.”

Water usage and pollution

The water footprint of fracking is enormous. Fracking requires millions of gallons of water to frack just one well. It also produces millions of gallons of toxic wastewater. An EPA study, which used over 1200 published documents, shows that water indeed can and will become contaminated via many of the activities involved in fracking. If water is taken from local streams and surface water at times of drought, various contaminants can become concentrated in the lower water volume.

Because fracking water contains many unknown and dangerous compounds, spills are especially problematic as they can reach ground water sources. Many such contamination events involve the release of  recovered fluid (called “produced water”), which consists of fracturing fluid and salts, heavy metals, hydrocarbons, and radioactive material accumulated from natural underground sources.

Often improper disposal, like the direct release of produced water into streams and rivers or into unlined waste ponds, will result in contamination as well as the deaths of avian species who mistake these waste ponds for freshwater ponds.

Fracking impoundment pond, Seneca, OH, 2017. Photo by Ted Auch / FracTracker Alliance.

Peer reviewed studies show that watersheds surrounding frack well pads test positive for radioactive substances. Of the hundreds of chemicals used to frack, more than 75% of them affect the respiratory and gastrointestinal systems; 40% to 50% impact the kidneys and the nervous, immune and cardiovascular systems; 37% act on the hormone system; and 25% are linked with cancer or mutations. These chemicals will also affect the health of species living around well pads as they are being exposed to water contamination.

The density of oil and gas wells in the drainage area of seven major streams showed a direct correlation in the amount of sediment in those streams. The study in the Fayetteville Shale area proved a need for regulations for the future as the ecological impacts of increased sediment affected feeding and growth in aquatic communities as well as altered the structure and function of the ecosystem.

Forest fragmentation

Fracking well pads and infrastructure will require clearing areas (cutting trees and vegetation). This will require areas of anywhere from four to thirty acres. Not only will this fragment the forest, it will cause other effects that to date    are still not clearly understood or studied. This includes additional fragmentation that could affect plant reproduction. Studies show that plants are indeed susceptible to forest fragmentation as it affects pollination and reproduction.

Animals and birds are also affected by fragmentation. “In Ohio’s Utica formation, the Indiana bat, which has been endangered since 1967, has been the subject of concern, along with the northern long-eared bat, which is currently listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.”

Frack pad, Captina, OH, 2018. Photo by Ted Auch / FracTracker Alliance

Habitat fragmentation will be one of the more serious long-term effects of fracking. Scientists believe that fragmentation of forests creates a smaller area of a forest and thus reduces biodiversity in some cases by up to 70 percent. The edge effects of cutting pipelines through forests also encourages the proliferation of invasive species which  can out-compete native species.

Without a continuous forest canopy, there is a decline in migratory bird populations as drilling in the middle of a core forest area that was once isolated from human creates an industrial zone. This is not a bird-friendly habitat. The fragmentation from large, long stretches of pipelines leads to more predation and the increase in truck traffic (up to 3300 one-way trips for chemicals, water, sand and wastewater) which will increase animal fatalities.  

Invasive species

Given the amount of equipment brought onto the drilling site, there are multiple sources and ways to introduce and encourage the spread of invasive species. “The evidence points to gravel delivered to build pads and roads, and in mud on the tires and undercarriages of trucks traveling those roads” as sources of invasives. This is especially true with species like Japanese stilt grass which is commonly seen around drilling pads. This quickly takes over wetland areas and chokes out natives.

According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, once a clearing is made in the forest canopy, it is more probable that an invasive such as tree of heaven or bush honeysuckle, will pioneer that clearing rather than an oak or hickory. Herbicide control is practically a necessity in these areas as was mentioned in their source.

Light pollution

Fracking operations have been known to allow flaring of natural gas. This results in a constant flame being visible in the sky. I have seen these flares in  Harrison County. They are obnoxious and blot out the stars in the night sky. Studies show this process affects plant diversity.

Birds have “been known to fruitlessly circle natural-gas flares, unable to navigate away from the light and as a result lose close to half their body weight in one night. Artificial light can also degrade habitat quality and disrupt predator-prey relationships.”

Fracking infrastructure, Smith, OH, 2017. Photo by Ted Auch / FracTracker Alliance.

Noise pollution

Fracking operations are very noisy. How will this impact species that call Ohio’s state forests their home? “Compressor stations associated with natural gas extraction produce broadband noise 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. With over half a million producing gas wells in the United States, this infrastructure is a major source of noise pollution across the landscape.” Studies show bats alter their echolocation when near loud infrastructure such as compressor stations and this results in their ability to detect prey. Another study of birds located near noisy energy facilities in the boreal forest showed a decrease in the number of birds as the area became noisier.

Healthy forests mitigate climate impacts and provide ecosystem services

Aside from the immense value forests hold for tourists such as bikers, hikers, birdwatchers, and outdoor enthusiasts, forests play a big role in mitigating climate change. Peer reviewed studies have shown that it is the big, older trees, that sequester carbon dioxide rather than younger trees, but secondary tree growth is also important in carbon storage. Additionally, the symbiotic relationship between the  forest plants and mycorrhizal fungi plays a significant role in the carbon storage of forest soils.

Flaring compressor station, Butler County, OH. Photo by Ted Auch / FracTracker Alliance

Climate change, the elephant in the room, is being exacerbated by our reliance on fossil fuels. Fracking operations, according to a recent report, release 70% more fugitive methane emissions than the industry reports. Methane gas is about 86 times as potent as carbon dioxide in magnifying heat related to climate change.

We are losing forest acreage to well pads, infrastructure, roads and pipelines. Drive through any highly fracked rural region and you can see the evidence of fracking with huge paths of pipelines fragmenting the forests and large “lay-down areas” covered with the remnants of what was once a tree-canopy. Instead of sequestering carbon, this dead vegetation will be releasing it.

Giving away Ohio’s citizens forested ecosystems to be exploited by the fossil fuel industry is absolutely ridiculous. Our state lands will become yet another casualty in this deadly “rush to drill.”

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