Shortly before noon Tuesday, a "fracking" protester who had secured herself to two concrete barrels at an oil and gas waste-water injection well in Alexander Township was separated from the barrels and hauled away by a sheriff's cruiser.
After an appearance in Athens County Municipal Court Tuesday afternoon, protester Madeline ffitch (correct spelling) was released on her own recognizance. She has been charged with inducing panic, a fifth-degree felony.
Ffitch released herself from the barrels around 11:45 after talking to her attorney, Don Wirtshafter, and Athens County Sheriff's Capt. Bryan Cooper. Up until then, law enforcement had been planning to use power tools to remove her from the barrels. The situation attracted a heavy law enforcement presence, with multiple jurisdictions represented on rural Ladd Ridge Road about seven miles southwest of Athens.
Ffitch is a 31-year-old landowners from Dover Township in Athens County. Law enforcement officials have indicated that they may seek reimbursement from her for the cost of their response to her protest. According to Wirtshafter, authorities have indicated that this may be in the neighborhood of $7,500.
After her court appearance, ffitch explained that she had volunteered to be the person who committed civil disobedience to help draw attention to the issue of waste-water injection wells in Athens County.
"I decided to do it because I thought it was important," ffitch said. She added that she was surprised by the massive law enforcement response she triggered.
"I didn't quite expect that to happen, and it was a little bit intimidating," she admitted. She finally chose to unclip herself from the barrels voluntarily, she said, because of the potential charges she was facing, and the possibility that officials would get her arms out of the barrels by smashing the concrete.
"At that point, I was intimidated by the idea of a jackhammer, and I was intimidated by the idea of a felony charge," ffitch said.
Sheriff's Capt. Bryan Cooper, who negotiated with ffitch, said the large law enforcement response was based on the fact that local authorities wanted to ensure ffitch's safety, and didn't know exactly what they were dealing with.
"If we cut her out, we don't want to hurt her," Cooper explained while ffitch was still locked down.
Sheriff Pat Kelly also cited the presence of a group of about a dozen people who came out to support ffitch as a reason to blanket the area with police.
"My deputies are here because there are protesters all over the place," he said – though police and firefighters on the scene at one point outnumbered demonstrators.
At one point during the morning, an enforcement officer with the Ohio Division of Wildlife – acting as an enforcement agent for the ODNR – walked down the line of protesters and media representatives' vehicles taking photos of the license plates.
At about 9:15 a.m., the protesters' designated media spokesperson, Sasha White, told reporters at the site that ffitch intended to remain chained to two concrete-filled barrels "as long as she's able to." Ffitch explained afterward that she had put chains around her wrists, which were clipped by a carabiner to a steel bar imbedded in the concrete in the barrels. Her hands went into the barrels through short lengths of PVC pipe stuck through their sides.
Several sheriff's deputies, an Albany Police officer, the Ohio Division of Wildlife enforcement officer and possibly other law enforcement personnel were crowded around the scene until about 9 a.m., while a small group of sign-holding protesters stood or sat across Ladd Ridge Road, encouraging ffitch with signs and shouts.
However, law enforcement soon blocked the protesters' vision of ffitch with vehicles, and then ordered the protesters to move about 150 yards down the road to a nearby intersection. They also ordered the news media away from the site, though not as far away as the protesters.
As of 10 a.m., a sheriff's spokesperson confirmed that more help had been called in, including the Ohio State Highway Patrol, the federal Department of Homeland Security and an unidentified fire department, apparently to help with the chains.
Sheriff's Capt. Bryan Cooper explained that the other protesters and news media had been ordered away from the site, for safety reasons. He cited traffic on Ladd Ridge Road, where the well is located, though it's a relatively infrequently traveled county road.
As for the vehicles blocking the view of ffitch, Cooper told the protesters, "All you guys are doing is encouraging her. No more publicity for you guys."
While Cooper said that news personnel would be allowed closer once personnel arrived with tools to cut the protester free, as of 10 a.m. the secured area was only getting larger, and a crime scene had been declared, with associated restrictions.
Asked whether the protest had been organized by any specific group, White said no, but that the protest represented "a banding together of people who are concerned" about the issue of dangerous chemicals being injected underground in injection wells.
In material handed out to the news media, the protesters demanded "an immediate investigation into violations at this well site: bridge weight restrictions, volume of injected waste, inadequacy of infrastructure… We want the 'brine' and other waste waters coming into this well analyzed and the findings disclosed to the public."
The protesters charged that the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, which regulates the oil and gas industry, "profits" from the industry, and as a result has a fundamental conflict of interest when it comes to regulating it. "We want our state government to stop protecting the power and profits of the oil and gas industry, and start creating laws that protect the health and safety of the people of Ohio," the protesters stated in their printed material.
In the past, ODNR and other state officials have insisted that Ohio's regulation of the oil and gas industry is tighter than most other states, and that recent legislation makes it even more strict. In an interview Tuesday morning, Heidi Hetzel-Evans, who works in the ODNR's communications department, reiterated that point. "With (recent) Senate Bill 315, there's no other state that's asking the operators to do what we're asking them to," she said.
Hetzel-Evans said that this particular injection well, known as the Ginsburg well, has been in operation since 1984, and was inspected less than two weeks ago, on June 13. At that time, she said, the 3,161-foot-deep well was "fully in compliance."
As for the waste-water itself not being tested, she said the ODNR does test oil and gas drilling waste-water on occasion, usually as a result of a complaint.
And realistically speaking, for any such testing to be effective, it would have to be nearly continuous, since trucks are constantly disposing of waste fluids at these wells.
Hetzel-Evans also claimed that in Ohio there's no recorded instance of groundwater being contaminated as a result of an oil and gas injection well, or any hydraulically fractured well for that matter.
The ODNR spokesperson said that while the well is likely getting some waste-water from hydraulic fracturing ("fracking") operations, it's also probably receiving typical brine disposal water from oil and gas production. This is the sort of waste-water that comes out of oil and gas wells throughout their productive life, rather than during the relatively short fracking phase.
The protest here in Athens County comes less than a week after ProPublica, a non-profit online news outlet, posted a story, "Injection Wells: The Poison Beneath Us," that challenges the industry and to some extent government wisdom that deep injection wells are relatively safe, and don't threaten water supplies.
According to the report, posted June 21: "Records from disparate corners of the United States show that wells
drilled to bury this waste deep beneath the ground have repeatedly
leaked, sending dangerous chemicals
and waste gurgling to the surface or, on occasion, seeping into shallow
aquifers that store a significant portion of the nation's drinking
The story, written by Abrahm Lustgarten, quoted Stefan Finsterle, described as a leading
hydrogeologist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory who specializes
in understanding the properties of rock layers and modeling how fluid
flows through them: "There is no certainty at all in any of this (the effects of injection wells), and whoever tells you the
opposite is not telling you the truth,... You have changed the system with pressure and
temperature and fracturing, so you don't know how it will behave."