Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of the issue of fracking on a political level is the absolute refusal on the part of elected representatives and public officials to listen to the concerns of the community in an open, public meeting.
It would seem to me to be the absolute least they could do. And yet, injection well after injection well is approved in Ohio with nobody of account willing to answer questions or hear out the opposition in a public forum. All avenues for redress of grievances are systematically closed. All letters of concern and scientific studies shared are summarily dismissed.
And meanwhile, hundreds of millions of barrels of oil-and-gas drilling wastewater are being pumped into Ohio’s ground having gawd only knows what type of short-term and long-term repercussions for our ecosystems.
I say gawd only knows because companies don’t have to disclose what’s in their fracking wastewater. They don’t have to monitor for local water quality. They don’t have to monitor air quality. They don’t have to answer to, well, anybody. Not in any real sense. Perhaps frack waste is as harmless and wholesome as summer sun tea. Unlikely, but perhaps. Who would know? We have no accountability.
The Ohio Department of Natural Resources enjoys sole regulatory authority over oil-and-gas drilling activity, but in six years of reporting on the issue of fracking and the ODNR I have never once seen an ODNR official display even the most rudimentary engagement of public concern on the issue.
No wonder people in this country feel powerless. No wonder people are angry. Who can look at this situation and believe these public officials have even the most basic respect for the communities they are supposed to serve, much less the thoughtfulness to hear out and answer their legitimate concerns?
So now the Wayne National Forest in southeastern Ohio is considering opening up leases to oil-and-gas drilling activity. This is being done in conjunction with the U.S. Bureau of Land Management. But, of course, before this huge decision is made on the future of this precious public natural asset, officials can’t be bothered to meet with the public face-to-face to discuss it.
Gutless. That’s the most polite word I have for it. I find it deeply disturbing. More and more I see this emerging trend of public servants refusing to serve the public. This is not how how representative democracy is supposed to work.
Only one body of elected officials, as far as I can tell, is willing to afford the public the time to express themselves. That’s the Athens County Commissioners. In the face of the BLM and WNF’s abject failure to be publicly accountable to the public and hold a meeting on the issue, the Athens County Commissioners held their own.
And at that public meeting in Athens Tuesday night on the proposal to open parts of the Wayne to oil and gas leasing, each one of 30 speakers spoke against it.
With a standing-room-only crowd of more than 125 people, a wide variety of local and regional environmental activists, as well as interested citizens, took to the podium to speak out against the BLM’s tentative plans to lease more than 18,000 subsurface acres of the Marietta Unit of the Wayne’s Athens Ranger District for oil and gas development.
That plan, if approved, would pave the way for oil and gas operations to apply for drilling permits on specific sites on the Marietta Unit, which then would go through an individual approval process.
Environmental groups and those at Tuesday’s meeting in Athens called a draft environmental assessment on the impact of fracking the Wayne invalid, saying that it failed to take into account the negative impacts that fracking would have on air quality, water quality, wildlife and climate change.
Speakers Tuesday urged Wayne National Forest Supervisor Tony Scardina to give “no consent” to the BLM’s leasing plan. A variety of speakers also expressed deep disappointment that Scardina did not show up at the meeting to hear community members’ concerns.
“I think all of us need to call Tony tomorrow and say, ‘Where were you?’” suggested Athens County Fracking Action Network (ACFAN) member Andrea Reik. “He needed to be here and hear from our community. He does not live in this community. He is a passer-through. This is where we live.”
Mathew Roberts of UpGrade Athens County said that he had met with Scardina and was told that he’s getting direction from the White House and the U.S. Congress to explore energy production. Roberts said this is related to their desire for America to be energy independent.
Roberts, however, cited alternatives for energy independence to the fossil-fuel industry, including biofuels, geo-thermal and solar energy. He said that those who care about the environment must not just oppose fossil fuels but continue to push these alternatives.
Crissa Cummings said that she had visited Scardina several times, and that he urged her to provide peer-reviewed research to demonstrate the science behind her various concerns over opening up the Wayne to oil and gas leasing. She said that she systematically selected the most scientifically thorough articles showing impacts on wildlife as well as air and water quality, but she never heard back from Scardina.
“I find it appalling that the people in southeast Ohio are reading studies and we know more about the impacts of fracking than our public servants who are making the decisions,” she said.
Sxip Shirey, a composer who lives in New York City but grew up in Athens, offered one of the more colorful comments of the evening. He said it breaks his heart to see the “debacle” of fracking coming to the Wayne National Forest.
“These people know what they’re doing. It’s not like you’re going to present them with logic and they’re going to be like, ‘Oh yeah, you’re right,’” he said. “They know exactly what they’re f***ing doing and they don’t give a s***.”
Milena Miller compared the privately owned mineral rights within the National Forest to owning the milk and not the cow.
“Once the milk is gone, once the oil and gas is depleted or becomes worthless, the public will be left with a denuded forest, contaminated aquifers, streams and air that affect the health and safety of the very public the National Forest Management is meant to protect,” she said. “Someone has to take care of the cow after the milk has dried up!”
Michael Rinaldi-Eichenberg said that leasing the Wayne is mortgaging the future to make a cheap dollar.
“It’s not a mortgage worth taking out. The wealth of fracking is not spread among everyone; meanwhile the risk of fracking is shouldered by everyone,” he said. “Government entities are meant to protect public interests. This is a case of government entities doing the exact opposite, sacrificing public land, public health in favor of corporate interests.”
Athens City Council President Christine Knisley noted that the city passed resolutions in 2011 and 2012 asking Wayne supervisors to study the regional impact thoroughly and keep the city informed.
“We took an oath the protect public health and safety, and it’s intrinsically linked to the health of the Wayne,” she said. “We request a more thorough analysis (of the impact of leasing).”
Mimi Morrison said that what happens in Washington County will happen here and what happens to the land there affects Athens County.
“This is our forest. This is our air. This is our soil. This is our water. These are our trees, our quiet, our peace, our region and our right of everyone connected to this land to have a pure environment outside of the pollution of money,” she said.
D.C. DeWitt is a writer and man of sport and leisure. He has also written for Government Executive online, the National Journal’s Hotline, and The New York Observer’s Politicker.com. He is the Associate Editor of The Athens NEWS in Athens, Ohio. DeWitt can be found on Facebook and Twitter @DC_DeWitt.