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How green? It’s Athens County’s turn to take the test

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Chmiel at MRF April 2015

In April 2015, Athens County Commissioner Chris Chmiel gave a tour of the county’s new Materials Recovery Facility. 

Editor’s note: This is the second story in a series analyzing how “green” and “sustainable” our local governments are. We’re analyzing Athens County government in this edition; Ohio University is next. Check out our first piece on the city of Athens.

While Athens County is occupied by the most progressive city in southeast Ohio, the county itself is a different animal, so its approach to sustainability is different.

Athens County is considered by some metrics to have the highest rate of poverty of any county in Ohio. While three Democrats sit on its county commission, for better or worse the county lags behind Athens city in terms of sustainable policies. In general, areas of the county outside of Athens are more conservative, with some – especially in the northern county – tilting for Donald Trump in the last presidential election.

Still, the county government, especially under Commissioner Chris Chmiel, has taken significant steps to improve energy efficiency, decrease its carbon footprint, and help encourage healthy lifestyles while attempting to support economic growth in the community.

Chmiel responded last week via email to a set of questions about the county’s efforts to be “sustainable” and “green.”

For starters, like in the city of Athens, the energy fueling the electricity that powers all of the county’s government buildings comes from non-renewable energy. The government buildings for both the city and county are on the same mercantile account through the Southeast Ohio Public Energy Council’s electric aggregation program. Still, Chmiel said that SOPEC’s very existence is partly thanks to the county’s work.

“A proactive energy focus has also helped Athens County be a founding member of SOPEC (the Southeast Ohio Public Energy Program),” Chmiel said. “Through this project, residents have saved money on their energy bills and the renewable content of the power generation has increased from 25 percent to 100 percent recently for the residential programs (in the city of Athens). Plus, having an organization like SOPEC in the region has provided economic opportunities by keeping more energy dollars locally and also accessing more funding through grants and such.”

Chmiel noted that laid out 15 goals in its 2016-2019 Sustainability Roadmap. Some of those goals include reducing energy consumption and increasing local access to renewable energy technologies.

Meanwhile, the county commissioners repeatedly have expressed concern about the negative impacts of fracking waste-injection wells scattered throughout the county. When it appeared oil and gas fracking itself would extend into Athens County, the commissioners discussed ways to mitigate its harmful environmental impacts, plus lobbied the state to give counties more authority to regulate related truck traffic and such.

Currently, a local group is seeking to place an anti-fracking county charter proposal on the ballot this fall, which would change the way our county government operates. At this point, it’s uncertain whether it will make the Nov. 7 ballot.

Energy efficiency

One of the main actions that the county has taken in recent memory to decrease its impact on the environment is a $4 million investment to improve energy efficiency in all of its government buildings. Over the next 20 years, the project is projected to save the county almost $5.4 million in “utility, operational, and capital cost avoidance,” according to an email from Johnson Controls, Inc., the contractor that implemented the project.

On top of not using renewable energy to power its buildings, the county currently doesn’t have any solar panels powering its facilities, Chmiel conceded, but he said that’s a possibility in the future.

Meanwhile, the county’s fleet of 140 vehicles entirely consists of vehicles that burn gasoline or diesel fuel, with the exception of two hybrid cars, Chmiel said.

“This has not come up as a major discussion point at this time and is not mentioned in our sustainability road map,” Chmiel said.

However, the county does help promote “active transportation” via investments to the Hockhocking Adena Bikeway, Chmiel said,

“We are also working toward establishing a county-wide complete streets plan,” Chmiel said. “This basically will help make sure more sidewalks and pedestrian-friendly infrastructure is included when appropriate throughout the county. This work is being coordinated between the county planner and the county engineer.”

Meanwhile, Chmiel noted that the county’s involvement with Upgrade Ohio, in seeking the Georgetown University Energy Prize (GUEP), has spurred the county to take on projects such as its energy-efficiency improvements. Upgrade Ohio is a county-based non-profit that Chmiel said has led to a number of positive environmental projects, including many grant applications for renewable-energy projects for local businesses, and efforts to help community members weatherize and save energy in their homes. 

Chmiel also noted that because of the county seeking the GUEP, AEP Ohio and Columbia Gas partnered to provide several “supportive projects to help” with Athens County’s community energy-efficiency goals. AEP donated 45,000 LED bulbs last year that have been distributed to homes throughout the county; meanwhile, both organizations also sponsored a Community Energy Savers program, which helped educate residents on incentive programs to encourage energy efficiency at home. That campaign led to $86,000 for the Athens County Public Library system for energy-efficiency projects, and led to the county’s creation of its Sustainability Roadmap, Chmiel said.

“Lots of little things have happened to promote energy efficiency as well; for example, Job and Family Services will now prioritize buying federal Energy Star-rated appliances when purchasing for clients,” Chmiel said.

Waste reduction

Chmiel noted that all of Athens County’s government buildings have recycling access. Meanwhile, the county government buildings in downtown Athens had a “zero waste” audit conducted by Rural Action a few years ago, which helped the county make more progress toward reducing its waste.

“We could probably do a bit better with composting though,” Chmiel acknowledged. “We get all our unwanted surplus repurposed or recycled.”

Still, Chmiel noted that Athens County has been a sponsor for many years of the Athens-Hocking Recycling Centers (AHRC), helping it transition from being a quasi-public agency to a fully realized independent non-profit. 

Chmiel said Athens County is a member of the “Keep Southeast Ohio Beautiful” group, and also helps fund a sheriff’s deputy who works on litter pick-up and enforcement of “illegal dumping” and illegal burning laws in Athens County.

“Athens County is also part member of the Athens Hocking Solid Waste District,” Chmiel said. “Through this entity, we get state grants for tire cleanups, hazardous-waste days and those types of events. Funding support for the building of the MRF (Materials Recovery Facility) has also come through the district.”

Sustainability plan

Athens County has a 2016-2019 Sustainability Roadmap, which will guide where the county goes next. The priority areas are listed below, along with some of the main goals for each.

• Environmental integrity. Goals include: Reducing energy consumption throughout county Facilities by 20 percent by 2019; exploring alternative- and renewable-energy technologies for use in Athens County, with a focus on SOPEC-aggregated households, municipal buildings and local businesses; identifying, reducing, and/or eliminating risks to the Athens County drinking-water supply, including aquifers, streams, rivers and lakes throughout Athens County by 2020; researching opportunities for increasing access to public water systems for hard-to-reach residents by 2020; and reducing waste sent to landfills by 10 percent by 2020, through material recovery and establishing a system for reuse, recycling and composting; 

• Economic vitality. Goals include: Increasing green job growth in Athens County by 3 percent by 2020; creating a sustainable business “roundtable” in Athens County by the end of this year; expanding Athens County mobility programs and public transportation access to residents by 10 percent by 2020; and increasing the county tourism rate by 10 percent by 2019.

• Community engagement. Goals include: Supporting community organizations in their efforts to increase availability of locally harvested food and produce to vulnerable populations throughout Athens County by 5 percent annually; and increasing awareness and community participation by establishing a team of three volunteer Ambassadors by 2017, to provide workshops and updates on the roadmap.

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