Washington, DC — U.S. Forest Service scientists tried in vain to prevent a gas drilling and pipeline project that threatened an underground cave system that shelters endangered bats, created toxic runoff and damaged long-term forest ecology research plots according to agency records released today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). Forest Service leaders, however, rebuffed its specialists’ efforts to moderate project impacts on the Monongahela National Forest in West Virginia and even blocked attempts to obtain advice from agency lawyers.
PEER is asking the U.S. Department of Agriculture Office of Inspector General to review what occurred during 2008 on the Fernow Experimental Forest within the Monongahela National Forest in Tucker County, including –
- Decisions to evade Endangered Species Act consultation rules (the requirement recently reaffirmed by President Obama) despite reports that the drilling may be harming Big Springs Cave, one of the largest winter hibernacula of the endangered Indiana bat on public land;
- Refusal to address ponds of toxic drill pit fluids that threatened wildlife and killed vegetation;
- Blocking requests for guidance form the agency Office of General Counsel to sort through complex resource issues instead of acceding to each industry request, no matter how damaging.
“The Monongahela offers a textbook example of how drilling should not be done on a national forest,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, who obtained hundreds of agency records under the Freedom of Information Act. “Unless the Inspector General intervenes we will see more train-wrecks like what occurred on the Monongahela when the price of natural gas begins to rise again.”
Many of the national forests in the East, including Congressionally-mandated wilderness areas and research forests, have privately held mineral rights. For decades, the Forest Service had held that no environmental restrictions apply to private extraction efforts. This stance, however, has put the agency in the middle of litigation from both environmentalist and industry on an extensive oil and gas drilling program on the Allegheny National Forest in Pennsylvania. In December, the Forest Service announced that it will finally consider adopting rules to curb abuses in drilling and mining operations.
“The reason the Forest Service keeps getting sued is that it insists on adopting a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ posture even when the problems are patently obvious,” Ruch added, noting that President Obama pledged last week that “The work of scientists and experts in my administration…will be respected”. “If the Forest Service is going to move forward as a science-based research agency, it is important that the managers on this forest, the regional office and headquarters who are responsible for this state of affairs be identified and removed.”