Fracking Tribunal

Among those making witness before a panel of four “citizen judges” Saturday at the First United Methodist Church of Athens was Cathy Froehlich-Burkhart of Belmont County, seated at right. Photo by Dennis E. Powell.

The first human-rights and environmental-justice hearing ever held in Ohio took place in Athens Saturday. The hearing was part of a tribunal process on impacts of fracking as a human-rights issue.

Sixteen presenters from around Ohio testified to a panel of four citizen judges at the First United Methodist Church in Athens, providing more than six hours of testimony.

The event is part of the Permanent People’s Tribunal on Fracking (tribunalonfracking.org), which is gathering testimony from around the world to deliver to the Permanent People’s Tribunal and the United Nations.

The Athens hearing, one of two planned for Ohio, was initiated by Teresa Mills, director of Buckeye Environmental Network (the former Buckeye Forest Council), and organized with support from Torch Can Do!, the grassroots group founded by residents living in and near Torch in eastern Athens County, and a grant from the Center for Health, Environment, and Justice (CHEJ). Torch is the site of one of the largest fracking-waste injection facilities in Ohio.

A second hearing will be held in northeast Ohio in July, according to a news release from organizers of Saturday’s event.

In the release, Mills explained why she’s organizing the hearings. “Ohio communities and grassroots organizations are intervening to try to halt what we believe are clear human-rights abuses by our state and federal governments.”

She maintains that Appalachian Ohio being targeted for waste injection is an environmental-justice and human-rights issue. “U.S. EPA is tolerating indisputably inadequate public participation and enforcement in low-income, rural Appalachian Ohio where injection wells and waste storage and disposal facilities are being sited rapidly and recklessly by Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR),” she said in the release.

Mills informed those assembled that “due to the critical violations committed by Ohio and the U.S. government, findings from this hearing will be sent directly to the U.N. Human Rights Council. Although the U.N. often holds its own forums, due to the urgency of this situation, these proceedings will be sent to the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and the Environment for guidance on next steps.”

Judges for Saturday’s event, who later made recommendations to accompany the testimony, included Lois Gibbs, founder of the Virginia-based CHEJ; retired Athens County attorney and mental-health counselor Nancy Pierce; Appalachian filmmaker Jack Wright; and the Rev. Kathryn Hawbaker, minister of First Unitarian Universalist Society of Marietta.

Testimony addressed human-rights violations in relation to injection wells, pipelines, public participation processes in Ohio, and federal leasing and permitting, radioactivity, and impacts of fracking and its infrastructure on water, air, human health, forests, climate, and local economies, the release said.

During the event, Scott Whitacre of Belmont County, in eastern Ohio across the Ohio River from Wheeling, West Virginia, said: “Those of us Ohioans living around shale gas and oil infrastructure appreciate having an opportunity to testify about the ill health and environmental impacts we are experiencing.”

Whitacre and two other Belmont County residents described headaches, respiratory and nervous system problems, hives, distress from persistent noise at over 80 decibels, and anxiety about health impacts on themselves, their children, and animals, as well as about home and property values.

One of them, Cathy Burkhart, stated, “I am quite fearful to live on this land, as hydraulic fracturing is now occurring just 2,000 feet from our front porch. This farm is still home and has been for over 170 years to many of my husband's relatives. My husband and our two children strongly desire to stay on this land. But that is where I have begun to gravely differ and think my family should leave this place, at least temporarily because of constant safety unknowns.”

After receiving the testimony of the 16 presenters, the judges conferred and presented their recommendations, which will accompany the gathered testimony to be submitted to the U.N. and international Permanent People’s Tribunal next year. Their recommendations, according to the news release:

“It is strongly recommended that a moratorium should be issued preventing exploratory and extractive fracking, injection wells, and associated operations until such time as a full, publicly funded, industry-independent, evidence-led Human Rights Impact Assessment has been properly undertaken and provided in the public interest. The evidence of extreme health impacts of fracking and infrastructure support the urgency of considering the human rights impact immediately.

This assessment should provide:

a) A comprehensive scientific examination of human rights-impacting activities and effects on climate change connected with fracking, injection wells and related infrastructure;

b) An in-depth analysis of the legal obligations placed upon the US national and local government and public authorities with regard to fracking, injection wells and associated infrastructure;

c) A thorough and thoughtful human rights-based assessment of the balance of public interest with regard to corporate and economic benefits of fracking against the risk of serious and irreversible human, social, cultural and environmental damage;

(d A thorough analysis of the potential human rights impacts of fracking on future generations. It is a grave failure of responsibility for the US government to continue to proceed with fracking, injection wells and related infrastructure construction and development without adequate assessment of the human rights impact."

Juror Nancy Pierce later discussed the event: “Each witness’s testimony was personal and powerful – some as victims of fracking or fracking-related activities causing severe physical symptoms to themselves and their children, pets and livestock, one being forced out of her home without compensation she’s fought for, another thinking she’ll have to move her family from her ancestral home. Others testified as activists thwarted by lax and unprotective laws, regulations and agency policies designed to support industry and discourage citizen participation. This event, with its unfailingly high-quality testimony on crucial aspects of unconventional drilling--from failure of well casings to pipeline construction, leaks and explosions, to impacts on climate--that are consistently hidden from public view by industry propaganda and influence, deserves international attention.”

FOLLOWING IS MORE OF THE testimony presented on Saturday:

Jill Hunkler, the third Belmont County resident testifying, described what life was like once a compressor station started operating on a hill above her home:

“First we noticed the odors and had nose, eye, and throat irritation as well as headaches. Then the symptoms worsened over time with nausea, vertigo, rashes, mental confusion, disorientation, numbness, body aches and pains. I began researching the negative effects of compressor station emissions and became very alarmed. I was introduced to others who had lived near compressor stations who had suffered similar ailments and became convinced that there was an emissions problem with the station. I made connections with Fresh Water Accountability Project and Earthworks, who offered assistance. I also contacted the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency (Ohio EPA) and voiced my concerns. On July 14, 2015 Earthworks used optical gas imaging technology to film the Humphreys Compressor station. The camera showed gases clearly appearing as grey plumes above the stacks and moving across the facility fence line, and also showed venting from the storage tanks. ‘The Humphreys compressor station is clearly a significant pollution source in the area and showed some of the most intense emissions we’ve filed to date,’ said Nadia Steinzor, Eastern Program Coordinator with Earthworks.  ‘While we were filming, my coworker and I experienced dizziness and headaches and smelled strong hydrocarbon odors.’”

Hunkler stated that Ohio EPA only inspected the site a year after receiving resident complaints and found the Vapor Recovery Unit (VRU) not operating according to the permit. Six months after the inspection, “Ohio EPA stated, according to Hunkler, ‘We currently are reviewing the response by the company and are working with MarkWest to ensure compliance with their permit terms and conditions.’  Six months after the violations were issued, the polluting of the air was still occurring at the Humphreys compressor station.”

Felicia Mettler, a founder of Torch Can Do!, stated, “My husband and I chose to raise our children in a peaceful quiet setting in the country. Our sense of security has been shattered as toxic, hazardous frack waste surrounds our small community. From the trucks hauling the waste to the vast storage tanks to the injection wells themselves, we now live with the fear of when: When will the air we breathe make us sick? When will our water become contaminated? When will the ground crack and damage our homes?”

She added, according to the news release, “My mother and father-in-law live 1800 feet from one of the largest-volume injection-well sites in Ohio. At times the noise is so unnerving that my mother-in-law has to stay inside or leave home. She had to start taking blood-pressure medicine. They have noticed water in the birdbath rippling for no reason. They have sat at home and felt vibrations, as have their neighbors. Neighbors have experienced odors so strong their eyes burned and they had to close windows and keep pets inside. The serenity of living in the country has been shattered.”

Mettler reported, “In 2015, our local water company sent a letter to its 14,000 customers warning that they could not protect our drinking water from chemicals and contamination. They have not been informed of what chemicals to look for; therefore tests cannot be put in place to detect traces of these chemicals. Ohio law does not require fresh water monitoring wells around Class II injection wells or air monitoring to detect VOCs. The public has no say on any of this, nor do our local officials. With no limitations on how much waste can be injected anywhere, when is enough enough?”

Greg Pace, of Columbus, addressed radioactivity concerns. Deep-shale waste is known to contain strontium, radium 226 and other deep-earth radioactive substances. Pace asked, “Since when has reliable science presented any evidence that radionuclides, including radium-226, are safer than scientists thought 70 years ago? Apparently the state of Ohio thinks they are safe enough to completely de-regulate aspects of oil/gas waste so that human exposure to low-level radioactivity is now state-sanctioned. It has been impossible for the public to gather data on rad levels in Ohio. Landfill workers and truck drivers are at risk of breathing radon gas, as well as radium from dust.”

OSHS-certified Professional Geologist and Soil Scientist, Julie Weatherington-Rice, testified on disasters that have occurred due to oil and gas exemptions from hazardous waste reporting laws. She cited two ongoing disasters resulting from these exemptions. “At this point in time, they [the oil and gas companies] only have to report to ODNR Division of Oil and Gas, and ODNR is forbidden to share that information under Ohio law. In June, 2014, the catastrophic Eisenbarth well-pad fire in Monroe County demonstrated the critical danger of that arrangement when first responders from 14 fire departments in three Ohio counties and West Virginia responded to the explosions and fire and then had to wait five hours before a basic list of chemicals burning on the site could be supplied… Finally, five days after the initial explosions, USEPA obtained the Trade Secret list of chemicals and shared them. The fire was still burning on the site.” The fire burned for a week. ODNR later reported that 70,000 fish were killed in the creek leading from the site to the Ohio River and downstream drinking water suppliers, which, another speaker stated, were never notified to shut off their intake valves during the fire.

Weatherington-Rice also cited the Barnesville Reservoir disaster, where a frackwaste truck travelling along the reservoir at 3 a.m. tipped over when the driver fell asleep, spilling 4,300 gallons of liquid waste into the reservoir. The situation would not have been possible, she stated, since the road was in a Source Water Protection Area, if oil and gas waste was not exempt from Federal Toxic and Hazardous reporting requirements and thus not subject to re-routing.

Christine Hughes, co-owner of Village Bakery in Athens, addressed impacts on the local food economy: “At least three farms I purchase major supplies from have been negatively affected by injection wells and pipelines. In one case the organic farm chose to shut down rather than risk selling contaminated food. Another has been in litigation with the pipeline companies surrounding her pasture and cannot speak to me about the situation, but she no longer sells her delicious cheddar, which we used to feature in our menu and our market. Additionally, a local second-generation orchardist who planned to pass the land and business on to the third generation was forced to lose acres of trees to make way for a high-pressure gas pipeline.” Hughes asked, “If it is a human right to have access to clean, safe food, what happens to that right when farmers have no information about what chemicals their soil and water are being exposed to, and how this exposure affects the health and safety of the food they are raising?”

Heather Cantino, of Athens, discussed climate impacts of fracking the Wayne National Forest: “Access to a livable climate is a human right. Opening the Wayne to fracking in 2017 is an abuse of this right, in part because methane is 84 times more potent a greenhouse gas than CO2 for the first 20 years after release, the very window of time we have to avoid catastrophic climate disaster.” She explained, “Extensive methane leakage as well as high CO2 emissions from oil and gas operations make these fuels worse than coal for climate, especially because of fuel-switching encouraged by industry-fueled misinformation about comparative emissions of coal vs. gas. Cheap fracking encourages dangerous pipelines, exports and increased gas use worldwide, meaning that fracking here is a global climate issue. Given vast supplies of oil and gas controlled by the federal government (almost a quarter of U.S. emissions are from federal leases) and government power to permit pipelines and export, our government’s refusal to consider science and public concerns about fracking public lands is a human rights abuse of global proportions.”

Annie Burke, a registered nurse and member of Torch Can Do, reported on Athens County’s Ginsburg injection well, including evidence that “a fresh-water monitoring well was recommended for this site in 1984. There has never been any such well.” She stated, “We write our senators and call our governor and march on our representatives’ offices. We meet with members of ODNR, and nothing changes. This community has lived through DuPont (chemical plant that makes Teflon) dumping C-8 into our water, and we have watched loved ones suffer and die with cancers and other illnesses because of it. Why should we be forced to do this again with frack waste? Just because our community is poor doesn’t mean we are expendable. We and our children deserve to have clean water and air.”

Bern Township Trustee and former Athens County Commissioner Roxanne Groff discussed inadequate public participation as a human rights issue: “Ohio law and federal law under NEPA mandate public participation in evaluating potential harmful environmental impacts before permitting and leasing. The state and federal regulatory agencies involved in the public participation process have all manipulated, misled and even lied to citizens, resulting in stonewalling the public in the battle for the rights of citizens as human beings to be guaranteed a safe environment.”

Video recordings of the hearing are currently at Torch Can Do’s facebook page.

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