Salting the Earth in WV

“If a tree falls in the forest, and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound?”

It’s an old question meant to encourage an examination of the relationship between perception and reality. I sometimes enjoy that sort of thought experiment, but this particular question never presented me with much indecision: Yes, it makes a sound. The sound is made–the air vibrates—regardless of whether it’s perceived by anyone.

But yesterday, when my hike took me to a huge, newly-fallen tree in our holler, I perceived the question in a different way. It struck me because my little creek seems to run partially underground. When the water is low in the summer, parts of the stream bed are dry, but other parts continue flow. The water burbles up, flows across the rocky bed, disappears for a stretch, appears again further downstream, only to sink beneath the surface again, etc.

WV is one part of a huge watershed–one of the most important parts, I’d argue. We’re at the headwaters. Where I am, the water springs forth from the ground, even emerging from caves. It will eventually reach the Gulf of Mexico.

The entrance to some of our caves

But now I have doubt about what that water carries with it.

Fallen trees are hardly unusual in a forest—heck, you can see plenty in my photo of our caves—but usually there’s some cause I can detect. The tree has fallen because it’s an old locust covered with shelf fungi. Or because the soil  has slipped enough on the mountainside that the roots can’t hold any longer and break. Or because a storm has blown. Or because it’s been struck by lightning, and has burst open where the sap has boiled within the trunk

But the fallen giant I encountered yesterday was a large, old, seemingly healthy tree. It had been among my favorites. On the flat, soft land in our narrow holler, I had gathered morels from beneath its branches. I had taken naps leaned against the trunk and listened to the rushing water. Now it was gone.

First I felt loss that it had fallen… but then anxiety and uncertainty washed over me when I couldn’t identify why.

It brought to mind a recent story about the Ghost Redwoods in California: scientists believe they might finally have solved the mystery of the white redwoods. Chlorophyll-less, the stark white ghost trees are unable to produce their own food, and had been thought to simply be parasites. But they are performing a service, evidently. They are cleansing the soil of heavy metal contamination. It’s possibly a symbiosis.

However, there aren’t any ghosts in my holler to cleanse the soil, and tests in our state have shown that tree deaths from frack waste can be devastating. Frack water can literally salt the earth in WV.

Half the trees died within two years. That’s where we stopped testing, for some rea$on.

It’s troubling that this study is one of the very few published environmental papers on modern fracking processes and the only one so far that seemed to do a long-term, start-to-finish study at a drilling site… The Forest Service study was the first to deal with land contamination, and judging from the paper’s findings, there is still a lot of ground… to cover.


What is the reality? There is an injection well a few miles from here. Perhaps my groundwater is contaminated already. Perhaps it’s not. Since no one is representing the people who live here—our politicians are simply concerned about the next election and representing the corporations who give them money—I just don’t know.

We need to holler from the hollers about it. But whom do we holler to?

“If a tree falls…”

Again, that’s an exercise meant to raise questions about the nature of the relationship between perception and reality. And yesterday, I realized that one of the problems here is that our politicians are refusing to perceive a reality that doesn’t benefit them personally. WV has been called a “resource colony” as opposed to a state, and it’s tough to argue with that when you know how much damage extraction has done and is still doing here.

I have seen first-hand how little regard frack execs have for people who live here—even their own workers—so little regard they are literally unable to grasp that bragging about the increased profits they will realize for themselves by socializing so many costs on us is simply not going to be a comfort to their victims.

“… and no one hears it… ?”

Tone deaf, I called Antero’s presentation. But to continue at their current obscene profit margins, Resource Barons must choose to perceive only the things that enrich them, and they pay our politicians to perceive only those things, too.

I spoke with Tommy Smith at the WV DEP this morning, who confirmed that there is no funded program whereby a citizen can have his/her water tested by the state for frack contamination. Smith’s job (or part of it) is to certify labs to perform environmental testing for the WV DEP, but if the state isn’t already monitoring a stream or investigating a known leak or spill, then individual citizens who suspect a leak must pay for their own tests.

That’s a problem that needs to be corrected.

Further, since we don’t know exactly what chemicals go into frack water, we don’t even know exactly what to test for, even if we have the money to pay for tests. In general, Smith explained, testing for conductivity in the water is a comparatively inexpensive way to show brine infiltration or lack, and is one of the main “markers” they look for with regard to leaking injection wells, for example. But according to him, organic compounds can also pose a problem—and those are extensive and expensive tests. Plus, a conductivity test would not show non-conductive chemicals infiltrating from the frack water. It would not show radioactive TENORM contamination.

Testing of this sort is something that is costing the individual citizen, not the industry or the government. It’s our sole responsibility. Our representatives are turning a blind eye… or rather, a deaf ear to our hollers. They are choosing to perceive and promote only what will benefit themselves.

“… does it make a sound?”


Fracking is now a sound that echoes through my thoughts, if not the thoughts of our representatives and other people charged to protect us, like WV DEP Secretary Randy Huffman.  They are choosing not to perceive our hollers for help.

For example, rather than taking action to avoid the appearance of impropriety, Governor Tomblin has “commended” Antero’s frackwaste disposal project. He didn’t meet with the people suffering, people whose interests he’s meant to represent. Yet Antero is among the states top five frack regulation violators. In exchange for Tomblin’s statement of support, Antero execs and even the wives of Antero execs have poured money into his campaign coffers.

Such an arrangement pretty straightforwardly appears corrupt. And the real tragedy is that it’s a pay-for-support arrangement that been normalized. We no longer bat an eyelash. We know that the chemical spill that poisoned Charleston’s water was caused in part by lax regulation and could have been prevented… and we also know that WV legislators pushed to reduce regulations, pushed after the spill, in order to protect the companies.

Another proposal currently being considered by the GOP-controlled legislature would amend the state Department of Environmental Protection’s proposed rules on drinking water protection to weaken its overall ability to regulate water quality…

Yet another proposed bill seeks to keep the coal industry from being sued for contaminating water…Senate Bill 357 would prevent lawsuits from being filed against mining companies for Clean Water Act violations if the standards being violated were not specifically written into state Department of Environmental Protection permits… At the same time, it would bar the DEP from applying those standards to future coal permits. The bill also includes a change that the coal industry has been seeking for years: to relax its limits on the amount of aluminum allowed in West Virginia’s streams.

Our representatives aren’t incentivized to govern in a way that puts us first. Repeated complaints about a leaking pipeline and missing berm from our gas well, for instance, resulted in a DEP representative acknowledging the problem during a visit a few years ago, while at the same time declining to officially report it. Instead he contacted the operator. Rather than fix the leak, that operator (Triad) promptly sold operating rights to another company. I doubt the purchaser was told that the sale occurred to avoid the costs of repair or clean-up.(And the problems have still not been fixed.)

Now what? Is the idea to transfer the costs of clean-up/repairs repeatedly until an ethical operator is saddled with them? Because that puts ethical businesses at a financial disadvantage. Declining to file a report means that you’re giving the bad guys incentives to continue being unethical. Meanwhile spills and leaks can continue.

[Frack water tested in our forests caused] “severe damage and mortality of ground vegetation” and, 10 days later, premature leaf drop. Two years after spraying, 56 percent of the large trees were dead… The study fully demonstrates the power of intensely saline wastewater associated with fracking. Fracking fluid may contain other destructive chemicals as well. With permits from the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection, companies regularly and legally spray such fluids into forests and, in some cases, near residential areas.

Why did we stop studying this again? My guess is that it’s because politicians get money to protect business interests. It doesn’t pay them to help us. They don’t get money to protect regular people; they just put themselves in jeopardy of not being elected again. That’s the way our system is set up to work right now: for politicians rather than public servants. We need to get the money out.

Is frackwaste from compromised injection wells, or petroleum products from leaky pipelines,  infiltrating our groundwater and creeping into WV forests beneath the surface? Are we salting the earth?

Maybe. Maybe not. Either way, given the risks, our government should not only be pursuing further tests, but should also offer a mechanism for citizens to request environmental testing. Because reality is reality, even when it’s politically inconvenient to perceive it.

WV autumn
Who hears the sounds of the forests falling in WV?



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