Photo Caption: Local restaurant owner Christine Huges, corner right, voices her concerns Tuesday about how drilling may affect the quality of food that she gets for her buisiness.
Landowners and activists crowded the offices of the Athens County Commissioners Tuesday morning to voice their opinions about a proposed resolution supporting stricter regulation of horizontal hydraulic fracturing in Ohio and the nation.
The deep shale oil and gas drilling technique has been at the center of controversy locally, as well as regionally and nationally. The county commissioners have said that they're working to find a compromise that balances environmental and economic interests.
"I think the vote will be all 'yay' by the time we get to the point where we can vote," Commissioner Lenny Eliason predicted after the meeting. "That's the point of this resolution. This is supposed to be an inclusive resolution."
The resolution, brought to the commissioners in revised form last week by fracking opponents, includes provisions that would establish a local strategic advisory board, support anti-fracking legislation currently under consideration in the U.S. Congress, and call for various points of oversight and regulation from the Ohio Department of Natural Resources.
Eliason said he foresees a vote on the resolution coming in another week or two after some outstanding issues are settled. Some of what needs resolved, he explained, is the part of the resolution that establishes an advisory committee. The commissioners still need to agree on who will sit on that committee and details of what that committee will work to accomplish.
"Just to create a committee, without giving them direction, it's a useless committee," he said.
On Tuesday, the commissioners met first with landowner David Willoughby, who presented them with a document he said has been formulated in opposition to the current draft of the resolution being considered.
"We as landowners expect this document will express the view of the owners of over 100,000 acres in the Athens County area on this resolution," he said.
Willoughby said that he owns 146 acres of property, and that he supports environmentally responsible, landowner-friendly horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing.
A series of landowners proceeded, one by one, to read the same statement the commissioners, giving their names and the amount of property they own, and stating that they support "environmentally responsible, landowner-friendly horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing processes that do not restrict economic growth" in the region.
A total of 16 landowners appeared before the commissioners and read that statement.
Willoughby pointed out that the group represents landowners from all over Athens County who are united in their support of moving forward with horizontal hydraulic fracturing development.
"We'd like to see this process happen in an environmentally friendly, responsible manner while also retaining the integrity of people's property, so we do not lose use of that property," he said.
Willoughby said that he recently toured northeast Pennsylvania where fracking has occurred and was satisfied with what he found.
"We went through the towns that were cited in the movie, 'Gasland,' visited with the folks there, and I can tell you that we did not bring back one negative comment from the trip," he said.
The commissioners also heard from Pat Smith, another area resident and landowner who supports oil and gas development in the county. He said he was concerned that the commissioners have been given false or misleading information.
"(Fracturing) is going to happen," Smith told the commissioners. "You have the ability to limit Athens County from being able to participate in that happening. Or you can certainly make it harder to happen in Athens County."
He acknowledged that oil and gas companies are in it for the money, but pointed out that they are still highly regulated and being closely monitored by state regulators.
"They are some of the most environmentally friendly sites that you will see," he said.
Smith said he doesn't have a problem with the pending resolution aside from the fact that he sees it as unnecessary and redundant. Many of its concerns are already being addressed by the industry, he said.
He was accompanied by Shawn Bennett, an Ohio University graduate and field director for Energy In Depth-Ohio.
Bennett, who said he grew up in southeast Ohio, said that he understands the economic problems of the region.
"But I am excited about the opportunities that shale development will grant the citizens of southeastern Ohio," he said. "If I thought these opportunities would negatively or adversely impact the citizens of Ohio, I would not be doing what I'm doing here today."
Bennett said that the horizontal fracturing technique is just as safe as the vertical fracturing technique that has been used in the region for many years. Furthermore, he said that because technology has gotten so much better, in many ways the drilling companies have even built a higher standard of safety and precaution.
He cited numerous reports stating that no documented cases of groundwater contamination have been found linked to the process.
Others at the meeting, however, questioned the truth of that, citing a lack of baseline testing as having a role in the supposed absence of proof of contamination. The issue of baseline testing is addressed in the proposed resolution, and those who support the measure say that it's imperative to establish a baseline of water quality before fracturing work begins in order to properly monitor its impacts.
Christine Hughes, whose local businesses, including the Village Bakery, depend on a healthy local foods economy, told the commissioners that she is highly concerned about how negative environmental impacts will impact local suppliers to her three local food businesses.
"I think everyone here wants protections for everyone here," Hughes said, referring to landowners and residents alike. "Many of us don't have the ability to simply move away."
Hughes said she'd like to hear landowners say that they plan on sticking around after drilling takes place, which several readily did. Some landowners declared that they support drilling and plan to pass the land on to their grandchildren someday.
Another member of the group proposing the resolution, Heather Cantino, took a harder line against the drilling.
"Contamination of water is occurring," she charged. "It's well documented."
She said that there are thousands of cases of water contamination. Furthermore, she said the risk at hand is permanent damage to the county water supply. Current regulation in Ohio, she said, is less protective than in Pennsylvania, for instance, where she said contamination has occurred.
"People are dying from this practice now," she said, citing information she's gotten from a listserv on the issue where a woman in New York contracted cancer and died from it five months after drilling began on her family dairy farm. "People are still touting the industry lies. We, as a community, need to look deeper and see what the economy will be like if we allow this unregulated industry to experiment on communities without further regulation."
Another local environmental activist, the Sierra Club's Lorraine McCosker, said that concerns about fracking have been well documented. She reiterated the importance of baseline testing.
"I think it's critical that as politicians and as administrators in our community that you follow science and not hearsay," she said.
Eliason said after the meeting that the power of Athens County on this issue is to have an embracing effect or a chilling effect. In Ohio, local governments have very little authority to actually regulate oil and gas drilling, or the storage of resulting wastewater.
"It's not necessarily power you have, it's a matter of whether you want to work with a group or work against a group," he said.