Athens County is not home to any hydraulic fracking activities of the sort that would create jobs or economic development i.e. actual drilling. But it is home to seven fracking waste injection wells, and in 2014 was the second most heavily injected county in the state—first for out-of-state waste.
An eighth injection well that was recently given the green light from the Ohio Department of Natural Resources is poised to jump Athens County from receiving a little less than 3 million barrels of waste per year to as much as nearly 7 million, well outpacing any other county.
Residents of Athens County have filed lawsuits, registered thousands of complaints, written hundreds of letters, petitioned public officials, requested hearing after hearing, appealed to the U.S. EPA, and have blocked wells in peaceful protest. In every case, they have been either dismissed, ignored, denied, or arrested.
It’s not limited to the residents. The Athens County Commissioners have requested a public hearing from the ODNR for these injection wells, and each time have been turned down with the same canned response everybody gets, which dismisses all concerns and amounts to, “Don’t worry, we’re handling it.”
The ODNR’s version of handling it includes no monitoring of surrounding air or water quality. And its record of enforcing its own weak rules is dubious at best.
The County Commissioners’ Association of Ohio attempted last year to lobby the legislature to make it so that if a public body requests a public hearing ODNR has to hold one.
Of course, the legislature ignored them. And this is merely a public hearing—a couple uncomfortable hours in front of the public for ODNR officials who are then free to go ahead and make the decision everybody knows they’re going to make anyway. The CCAO is reportedly poised to try again this year.
A group of anti-fracking activists announced Tuesday they will be circulating petitions for the November ballot to turn Athens County into a charter government (joining Cuyahoga and Summit counties).
Their goal is to ban the dumping of oil-and-gas fracking waste, as well as the use of water from sources in the county for fracking activities. The measure apparently wouldn’t seek to actually ban deep-shale oil and gas drilling itself. Medina County is reportedly shooting for something similar.
The Athens group is called the Athens County Bill of Rights Committee, and is a countywide version of the city of Athens’ Bill of Rights Committee that passed a citywide ban on all oil and gas/fracking activities with 79 percent of the vote in November 2014.
But the Ohio Supreme Court, in a split decision earlier this year on Munroe Falls v. Beck Energy, ruled that cities have no right to attempt to protect themselves in this way. Ohio Revised Code gives sole regulatory authority to the ODNR Division of Oil & Gas, the court majority said, and no local law can take that away using home rule.
With the state’s legislature and administration firmly entrenched in the interests of the drilling industry’s waste disposal, at best indifferent to the expressed health concerns of the residents, the high court decided to join them.
And a Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court decision in Broadview Heights, Ohio cited that Supreme Court decision in tossing out a bill of rights fracking ban similar to the one in Athens and the one proposed for Athens County.
The ACBORC has not been dissuaded by the Ohio Supreme Court, nor the Broadview Heights ruling.
“We declare our right to refuse to live under state (fracking regulation) law which denies our constitutional right to self-government,” member Dick McGinn said at the announcement of the charter petition drive Tuesday outside the Athens County Courthouse.
McGinn announced that the group proposes the charter because all county residents have a right “to live in a clean and safe environment” and to participate in county government.
A charter government should be formed, a press release said, “so that the people in all incorporated and unincorporated parts of the county may exercise all powers including, but not limited to, those vested by the Constitution and laws of Ohio in home rule municipalities.”
The petitioners reiterated that injection wells endanger the health of Athens County residents who see no economic benefit from this waste disposal. And the majority of the waste going into the ground in Athens County is coming from out-of-state.
“(By this charter) we propose to end the shameful practice of using Athens County as a ‘sacrifice zone’ and dumping ground for waste products of unknown, secret, highly suspicious, and possibly radioactive content,” said ACBORC member Barb Campagnola.
The prohibition would not include wastewater produced inside the county by conventional shallow vertical drilling methods, the charter states.
McGinn declared, “When a long train of abuses and usurpations, all aimed at reducing the people of Athens County to vassalage under the despotic rule of a mindless bureaucracy, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such government, and to provide new safeguards for their future health, happiness, and safety.”
ACBORC member Sally Jo Wiley said the charter proposes to “elevate the consent of the governed above the administrative dictates and preemptions that serve special privileges rather than general rights.”
The group has to gather 1,440 signatures by June 24 to appear on the November 2015 ballot, but they have set a 2,000-signature goal.
On the problem of the court ruling against home rule, city of Athens Law Director Lisa Eliason said at the time of the Munroe Falls decision that the the case reinforced the need to legislatively change state law to allow local regulatory power.
And in the end, that is the rub.
Residents of cities and counties across Ohio can enact local ordinances and fight the litigation, file lawsuits, protest, write letters and demand accountability. But nobody will get very far until everybody is working together statewide.
The state of Ohio now has over 200 injection wells for oil and gas waste. We had 14 million barrels injected in 2012, and 16 million injected in 2013. Over half of that came from out-of-state.
Between 2011 and 2014, the amount of frack waste injected in Ohio increased by 75 percent.
I support every individual community’s individual efforts. Having played witness to the situation in Athens County covering it for 6 years, I’ve seen every concern, including the most reasoned and moderate, dismissed by the ODNR on its face.
I’ve seen the ODNR refuse to even listen. I’ve read time and again the ODNR’s boilerplate, PR-101 answers that pollute my inbox when I ask them to explain themselves. I’ve had my public records requests obfuscated by them dumping thousands of files on me at a time.
Watching a government agency render American citizens so overtly powerless to industry is infuriating.
People are angry about it, and trying everything they can, and I support that.
But it’s time for all of the citizens of Ohio to stand together. It’s time we demand that our state law and lawmakers represent our interests, as citizens and as human beings.
It’s time to work together to change the Ohio Revised Code and demand that our representatives represent us.
David DeWitt is a writer and man of sport and leisure based out of Athens, Ohio. He has also written for Government Executive online, the National Journal’s Hotline, and The New York Observer’s Politicker.com. He can be found on Twitter @TheRevDeWitt.