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Sunday, January 5,2014

Local anti-fracking group comes back with 2nd attempt at ballot measure

By David DeWitt
Photo Credits: File photo.
Photo Caption: Dick McGinn of the Bill of Rights Committee hands in the petition for an anti-fracking ballot measure.

A group of anti-fracking activists announced Saturday that they have submitted more than the necessary number of signatures to put a fracking ban proposal before city of Athens voters in May.

A similar proposal was rejected by the Athens County Board of Elections in August after an objection was raised by a group of Athens residents.

The oil-and-gas drilling technique known as horizontal hydraulic fracturing, and related activities, have become a big local story in the last two years as deep-shale drilling has moved into eastern Ohio, and closer to Athens County. While no horizontal hydraulic fracturing has occurred in Athens County as of this point, related deep injection wells for fracking waste liquids are operating here, with more being proposed.

"The Bill of Rights Committee turned in a total of 871 signatures to Athens Deputy Auditor Laura Kreider at City Hall Friday afternoon, Jan. 3, in support of an initiative petition intended for the spring primary election ballot," a news release sent by BORC spokesperson Dick McGinn announced.

A minimum of 550 valid signatures had been required to place the measure on the spring ballot. The city Auditor's Office is required to hold the petitions for 10 days before submitting them to the elections board for review.

City Auditor Kathy Hecht has previously said that the Board of Elections will then determine the validity of the signatures and also hold them for 10 days. The board must then decide to certify the signatures 90 days before the May primary election.

In August, three election board members voted unanimously to sustain the objection to the citizens' ballot initiative that would have banned fracking as well as waste-disposal activities in the city, and which also expressed an intention to penalize fracking polluters upriver from Athens.

The objection to the BORC's anti-fracking initiative was filed by a separate group of seven Athens area residents represented by local attorneys John Lavelle and Rusty Rittenhouse.

Lavelle and Associates was unable to persuade two other Ohio elections boards to sustain similar objections in Bowling Green and Youngstown, though the initiatives ended up failing with voters in those places anyway. Voters in Oberlin, west of Cleveland, supported a measure to ban fracking and related activities in November.

In October, the BORC announced it would amend its proposal and work to get the measure to voters on this spring's primary ballot.

"The new initiative differs from an earlier petition by the group, which had sought to ban fracking and injection wells within 20 miles upstream of Athens city, but was blocked by the County Board of Elections," the BORC said in its release Saturday.

The 20-mile language had been a bone of contention brought up by Lavelle to the Board of Elections, and raised heavy criticism from residents and interests outside the city of Athens, who complained that the city has no authority to regulate industrial activities outside its border.

"The current initiative seeks only to ban deep-shale drilling and fracking-waste transport inside the city limits," the release said. "Most importantly, the initiative includes a Bill of Rights which invalidates the state's pre-emptive laws granting special privileges to for-profit corporations over the rights of people to a healthy, clean and safe environment."

Critics of fracking ban advocates often have noted that Ohio Revised Code designates the Ohio Department of Natural Resources' Division of Mineral Resources Management as the sole regulator of oil and gas drilling in the state.

Anti-fracking advocates have argued that municipal home rule should trump state law, and also claimed that the 2004 state law only came about because of campaign contributions and pressure from the oil and gas industry.

City officials have suggested that if a fracking ban measure were to pass in Athens, they would consider seeking a declaratory judgment on it, as preemption to possible litigation.

The name of the BORC's proposed initiative is the Athens Community Bill of Rights and Water Supply Protection Ordinance, and the group said the complete text is available at

In addition to the removal of language referencing 20-mile "jurisdiction," other changes found in a side-by-side comparison of the old draft and the new one show a shuffling of the "definitions" section, a scaling back of language directly challenging state authority, and alterations to language defining ecosystems.

The Ohio Supreme Court is currently considering a case that challenges the 2004 law giving ODNR sole authority to permit and regulate drilling in the state.

In that case, plaintiff Munroe Falls cites state constitutionally protected Home Rule principles as allowing local governments to regulate and zone oil and gas drilling activities.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court recently struck down provisions of that state's Oil and Gas Law that prevented municipalities from applying zoning law to oil and gas operations.


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