The Athens County Commissioners agreed Wednesday to hold a public meeting on the Wayne National Forest potentially being opened to oil-and-gas leasing after U.S. Forest Service officials reportedly declined multiple times to do so.
In related news, area anti-fracking activists held a “toxic tea party” near an injection well site in far eastern Athens County on Tuesday.
Calling themselves “Torch CAN DO,” a group opposed to the hydraulic fracturing waste injection well next to U.S. Rt. 50 in Torch held a “toxic tea party” demonstration near the well. As brine trucks rolled in and out of the well site, demonstrators waved posters and signs in opposition to the well, all injection wells, and fracking in general. They also set up a long table, seeking to replicate the tea party in Lewis Carroll’s classic story.
In the meeting Wednesday, members of the Athens County Fracking Action Network (ACFAN) asked the county commissioners to hold the public meeting, they said, to allow the public an opportunity to provide input and express concerns about drilling on the national forest.
“This is the third time the commissioners have been asked to hold a public meeting where officials from the state and federal government have refused to do so, thereby denying citizens the right to be able to address concerns,” ACFAN member Roxanne Groff told the commissioners. “I think the community is greatly appreciative for their opportunity to get up and speak.”
Environmental groups including ACFAN, the local Sierra Club and others have opposed a proposal to open 40,000 acres of the Wayne National Forest’s Marietta Unit to leasing by companies hoping to drill for oil and gas, using the controversial horizontal hydraulic fracturing (fracking) method.
Meanwhile, groups representing owners of land adjoining the federal land in the National Forest’s Marietta Unit have been lobbying the U.S. Bureau of Land Management to move forward on the leasing plan.
So far, the Forest Service and federal Bureau of Land Management have not proposed leasing land in the national forest’s Athens Ranger District for drilling. The agencies are due to make a final decision on leasing in the Marietta Unit later this summer, based on public input and an administrative finding of no significant impact.
While the plan would allow for leasing on the national forest, individual drilling plans would still need to obtain various federal approvals.
ACFAN’s Groff told the commissioners that Wayne National Forest Supervisor Tony Scardina has declined multiple times to hold a public meeting on the issue.
“Mr. Scardina told me twice, ‘Hold your own public hearing because I’m not going to do it,” she said. “We do know that the Bureau of Land Management is probably not going to accept the transcript (of the commissioners’ public meeting) but it should be submitted anyway.”
ACFAN member Heather Cantino of Athens said she believes it’s important to get testimony that will be presented at the meeting into the public record for future reference.
“We’re not talking about fracking the Walmart parking lot here; we’re talking about fracking our national forest,” she said.
ACFAN member Andrea Reik argued that even though the proposal is for the Marietta Unit of the forest, the group believes oil and gas drilling will have a negative effect on the entire forest, which has units near Marietta, Athens and Ironton.
She also said that Scardina has the authority to approve or deny opening the forest to drilling activity.
“As far as we know, he has not yet given consent or denial on that, so we think (holding a meeting) is important to do as soon as possible,” she said, with other members of the group indicating they fully expect Scardina to give consent.
Commissioner Charlie Adkins wondered whether an opportunity might exist to obtain money to perform environmental monitoring if the leasing proposal is approved and deep-shale drilling proceeds in the national forest’s Marietta Unit.
“If they do this after we have this hearing and they blow us off after the hearing, there’s nothing where we could request X amount of dollars to do air and water sampling?” Adkins asked, to which the ACFAN members replied in the negative.
The commissioners agreed to set a public meeting for 7 p.m. June 28 at the Athens Community Center on East State Street.