Photo Caption: Demonstrators including Ivar Balkits, left, hold signs outside the Athens County Courthouse Monday afternoon to protest Ohio's regulation of fracking wastes
A group of local environmental activists and other concerned community members rallied in front of the Athens County Courthouse Monday, calling for a federal-level investigation into Ohio's regulation of deep injection wells for oil and gas waste materials.
Led by members of the Athens County Fracking Action Network (ACFAN), the rally featured several speeches by attendees, as well as some brief remarks from Athens Mayor Paul Weihl.
The rally even drew the attention of some advocates of deep-shale oil and gas drilling (sometimes referred to as "fracking"), who protested the protesters.
"Right here in Athens County, the Ginsburg injection well… has been ordered to be plugged and abandoned, but that order was never enforced," asserted ACFAN member Grace Hall during the rally.
She cited the disposal well – located on Ladd Ridge Road in Alexander Township, southwest of Athens – as one of multiple cases in which the Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR) has failed to uphold proper regulations. In a press release, Hall said simply, "[ODNR] is not doing its job."
Due to what they allege as repeated violation of state and federal standards in fracking disposal wells, ACFAN and other community members have urged the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to take over ODNR's control over fracking waste disposal regulation. "We need someone who will protect the people from this toxic, carcinogenic, radioactive frack waste," Hall said.
Crissa Cummings, the event's master of ceremonies, framed ACFAN's proposal as a step toward an overall ban of fracking in Ohio. She read aloud a petition calling for U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown to support the Fracturing Responsibility and Awareness of Chemicals (FRAC) Act: "We cannot be in such desperate pursuit of energy resources that citizens' rights and freedoms – and our children's future – be ignored and abused."
Mayor Wiehl spoke out against hydraulic fracturing during the open mic portion of the rally, comparing fracking operations to the coal-mining industry that left negative environmental repercussions across the region. "I'd like to see better oversight," he said. "I'd like to see better control."
Wiehl also referred to the recent deep-shale drilling boom across the country – and recently in eastern and northeast Ohio –as "shortsighted."
The rally took place amid recent speculation over possible future drilling in the Athens area. Recent maps from the ODNR suggest that Athens County's chances for potential deep-shale drilling/fracking are increasing, and Athens City Council has discussed a local group's proposal to enact a fracking ban in the city, which might also cover areas to the north and northwest of the city in the watershed that supplies water to Athens. That proposal may go to Athens voters as a ballot initiative next fall.
Wiehl seemed to doubt the effectiveness of such a move, however. "We could actually ban fracking in the city limits, but the city limits aren't going to be the place to frack. It's going to be everything external of us," he said.
NOT TO BE LEFT OUT, THREE drilling advocates drove past the rally several times in a large pickup truck, drowning out speakers' voices with the vehicle's rumbling engine. "Do you guys pay our taxes?" they shouted as they passed, holding a sign reading, "This is our land."
Eventually, the drilling/fracking supporters approached the event on foot and asked to participate in the open mic. Though they were barred from using the PA system, the young men stood near the rally and offered comments to any passerby willing to hear their side of the fracking issue.
"We make our money off the land," said Ryan Ervin, dairy farmer and fracking advocate. He noted that local farmers face increasing challenges when trying to make their living, such as low market prices and high operational costs. Oil and gas leases on their property, he said, offers farmers and other landowners a supplementary income that can mean the difference between financial success or failure.
Opponents of hydraulic fracturing cite the toxicity of the chemicals used in the water-based fluids injected deep underground to unlock oil and gas resources and bring them to the ground. The process requires millions of gallons of chemical-laced fracking liquid, which then must be disposed of when it rises to the surface.
Critics cite dangers to nearby groundwater, from toxic chemicals that have been found in fracking brine. They charge that the ODNR is too close to the oil and gas industry, and hasn't been vigilant in protecting the public interest from toxic pollution from injection wells.
Those who support hydraulic fracturing tout the economic benefits of domestic drilling efforts, as well as what they say are harmless or negligible amounts of chemicals used in the process. "It's dish soap," said Ervin. "The [chemical proportions] may be different here and there, but it's... pretty much dish soap."
More information about the FRAC Act can be found online at govtrack.us, a website that tracks the progress of legislation in Congress. Anyone interested in anti-fracking activism can visit ACFAN's homepage, or simply open a local paper – fracking news seems to make an appearance fairly often in these parts.
As far a statewide ban on fracking is concerned, critics of the process have an uphill climb. The GOP-dominated Ohio General Assembly supports the oil and gas industry (and vice versa), and a recent poll by the Columbus Dispatch suggests popular statewide support for the industry as well.
Among other questions related to Ohio Gov. John Kasich's proposed tax changes, the newspaper asked a sampling of Ohio residents if they support Kasich's plan to increase the tax on oil and natural gas produced through hydraulic "fracking." Forty-seven percent of respondents said no, 39 percent said yes, and 14 percent said they're not sure.
The proposed taxes would make Ohio's severance tax for oil and gas about the same or less than that of neighboring states where fracking has been widespread.