Photo Caption: Madeline ffitch, hands raised, addresses the Athens County Commissioners Tuesday about her concerns over fracking in the area.
The Athens County Commissioners Tuesday morning provided several suggestions to a local group to help in their fight against the forcing through of a proposed drilling disposal well in Rome Township.
The disposal well opponents are challenging what they feel are unfair limitation of public input by the Ohio Department of Natural Resources.
At issue is a pending state permit application for a deep injection well that would accept waste brine from oil-and-gas drilling operations. The well has been proposed by a company, D.T. Atha, Inc., based in Sugar Grove, Ohio.
The public comment period for the proposed well closed Sept. 17.
A news release from Athens County Fracking Action Network (ACFAN) charged that now, 30 days on, the period in which ODNR's Division of Oil and Gas Resources Management should have responded to valid objections has passed.
Former Athens County Commissioner Roxanne Groff led the charge Tuesday morning speaking to the current county commissioners, slamming the ODNR for ignoring more than 70 pages of concerns related to the injection; the state said there would be no public hearing on the matter, and stated that instead these issues would be addressed in "terms and conditions" attached to the permit.
She thanked the county commissioners for their own letter requesting a public hearing on the Atha well.
"You were also dismissed in your request for that," she said. "Mrs. Frost, the owner of the property on which the well is proposed, is also opposed to it and has retained an attorney."
Moreover, many other citizens also expressed objections and concerns that were more or less dismissed by the division's chief.
Groff said that the state of Ohio and ODNR are continually thwarting the ability of citizens to have input on the injection well process.
"We write good (detailed) letters, as did you, expecting to get a public hearing," she said. "Instead, we get this absurd little form note from ODNR that has no reflection of anybody having read the letters and even has no mention of what well is being addressed."
Groff charged that this was an "extraordinary" use of the "discretion" clause in Ohio Revised Code for the division chief to "blow us all off" and instead just attach some terms and conditions to the permit and call it complete.
"There's a lot of distress on the part of the citizens, and surely on your part as elected officials, that we are ignored," she said.
Commissioner Lenny Eliason referred to the "discretion" clause as a "loophole" in the Ohio Revised Code designed to give the agency carte blanche to ignore public input.
He also noted that ORC has another clause about the obligation of the state to consider "public interest," and said that by dismissing the many, many concerns of citizens, the ODNR is ignoring that obligation.
Eliason suggested the group approach media outlets in Columbus such as NBC and the Columbus Dispatch to express these concerns about the ODNR's seeming willingness to dismiss public concern over the permit applications they approve, including those of the landowner herself.
In response to these concerns, ODNR spokesperson Heidi Hetzel-Evans forwarded a response the agency had previously given to other media inquiries.
She said that the ODNR "takes seriously its responsibility to respond to citizens' comments" on injection wells.
The way that ODNR wants to handle this issue, she explained, is not through a public hearing. This is because the agency "knows from previous experience that one of the best ways to communicate effectively with affected citizens is to have an open house-type public meeting where everyone's questions can be heard, which will take place in Athens in November."
The difference between a public hearing and a public meeting, according to information she provided, is the difference between a meeting where the division chief is given expert testimony from all sides during a hearing, and, on the other hand, where the ODNR conducts a public information session during a "meeting."
Nevertheless, a "public hearing is not a reliable model for an accurate and complete exchange of information with the public," Hetzel-Evans asserted. "The public hearing format can actually hinder opportunities for the entire public to be heard and for incorrect information to be corrected."
She then addressed the concerns that the ODNR has heard with regard to the well.
With regard to concerns about groundwater contamination, she said, "In the nearly 30 years of ODNR managing Ohio's Class II injection well program under a primacy agreement with the U.S. EPA, there have been no cases of groundwater contamination due to injection well disposal."
With regard to concerns about the potential for surface water contamination, she said, "Issues related to surface water contamination concerns are addressed by permit conditions which require the operator to construct the injection well facility to address spill prevention (i.e., the surface facility must have capacity to withhold all fluids contained in tanks)."
With regard to concerns about potential problems related to oil-and-gas well conversion, she said, "Any injection well converted from an oil and gas well is required to have 300 feet of cement above the injection zone, isolating the injection zone. Bond logging is required by the operator to provide evidence of compliance."
Finally, with concerns regarding the potential for induced seismic activity, she said, "Ohio's new Class II injection well rules mandate that no new well may be drilled into the basement (Precambrian) rock formation; the Atha well is targeting a much shallower formation for injection. Additionally, the state's new rules enable the chief to require seismic monitoring during pre- and post-drilling as well as a number of other precautions."
"Upon evaluating these and all other relevant objections received regarding the Atha well, chief has determined that a public hearing is not required in this case," she concluded. "However, we believe concerns regarding injection wells are important, valid and critical, which is why it is even more important to have a public open house to address these concerns."
These assurances have not persuaded many Athens County residents concerned about this issue – members of the ACFAN have promised to continue to call the state to account.