Wednesday eve, soon after the ODNR invited the public into an “open house” about injection wells , they thought better of it and ordered the public to leave.
Though over 100 community members requested a public hearing about a newly permitted well, the ODNR had instead opted for an “open house” format, designed to diffuse agency accountability and community solidarity. The event was held 6 PM, Wed. night, at the ODNR headquarters on East State St, Athens.
More than seventy-five residents were crowded inside ODNR Athens headquarters when they took matters into their own hands and transformed the ODNR’S planned “open house” into the public hearing they had requested. The crowd was made up of concerned landowners, farmers, business owners, and mothers with young children. Ex-county commissioner Roxanne Groff hosted the impromptu event. She began by acknowledging Rick Simmers, Chief of the Division of Oil and Gas Resource Management, and moved on to take prepared public comments from the assembled crowd. ODNR personnel were visibly at a loss. Law enforcement quickly interrupted Groff, asking her to leave, at which point Groff asked the public if they would like her to continue. The room broke into enthusiastic applause. After law enforcement again ordered residents to leave, the crowd broke into a “mic check”, chanting as they left the building “The ODNR has been bought by the oil and gas industry!” “No new permits!” “When is the public hearing?” When the public left, the room was nearly empty, except for ODNR personnel and the large law enforcement presence they had invited.
After the public was ordered out, they were met outside by over 100 Athens County residents who had marched down E. State St. to ODNR headquarters to voice their objection to the ODNR’s continuing disregard of the widespread community concern about Class II injection wells.
The marchers carried placards emblazoned with skulls and held a banner that read “Shut it Down! No New Wells!” and signs with slogans such as “Our Safety is Not for Sale”, “Defend Our Water”, “We Demand a Public a Hearing”, and “I Want my Concerns on Record” “. Marchers wore hazmat style suits and respirators to draw attention to the fact that Class II injection wells accept massive amounts of radioactive fracking waste from out-of-state.
Community objection to injection wells has been increasing lately, as landowners have realized that they do not have any say if an injection well goes into operation on or near their property. Ms. Malvena Frost, who owns the property on which the Atha injection well is proposed in Rome Township, Athens County, does not want an injection well on her land. She “fears her only source of drinking water, a private well…will be contaminated,” according to public comments submitted on her behalf to ODNR by her attorney, Mike Hollingsworth.
SB315, cited by some as a law that will increase regulations on injection wells, actually makes it easier for ODNR to bypass public notice period for new wells, and makes it more difficult for landowners to appeal permits.
A public hearing, the ODNR’s standard system for public redress, allows citizen comments to be entered into the legal record, so that citizens can challenge an agency decision through the court system. An “open house” offers no such substantial participation in public process.
Underscoring how opposed they were to receiving public input, ODNR designated an outdoor, “free speech zone” for the ralliers and forbade the public from bringing in signs, banners, backpacks, or audio or video cameras. One citizen was ordered to leave after recording officials’ comments.
Ralliers brought their own solar-powered sound system and hot plate, stage, and roster of speakers. “We will challenge these intolerable restrictions on our constitutional rights to freedom of speech and assembly,” said Smiles Welch, the emcee of the event. Hot beverages kept the ralliers warm for over an hour of testimony.
Speakers at the event raised many objections to injection wells, including a history of failed wells and water contamination. The ODNR claims that there have been no cases of water contamination by Class II injection wells in Ohio for decades, yet they do no testing of groundwater or surface water near the wells. “The reason they have not found contamination is that they have never looked for it,” stated Grace Hall, one of the 100 who sent in objections.
Although the fracking waste that is dumped into injection wells is hazardous, it is not legally classified as such due to exemptions given to the oil and gas industry.
Assembling for public hearing–hearing the public–outside (click images to enlarge):
Local resident, Mary Anne Flournoy responds to news of open house and treatment of the public with letter to ODNR Oil and Gas Chief Simmers:
Dear Mr. Zehringer and Mr. Simmers: I am outraged by the treatment given citizens in Athens County last night. As a 41 year citizen of this blessed place and co-owner with my husband of 327 acres of excellent agricultural and forest land west of Athens City, I wrote a letter in August requesting a public hearing concerning the proposed granting of the permit for the Atha injection well. The response given to my concerns was insulting and did not at all address any of the issues that I and others have raised. Rather that grant a public hearing, which we are entitled to by law, we were invited to an “open house” in a space that was clearly too small to accommodate those with concerns. The group inside was evicted because they exercised their free speech rights under the U.S. Constitution and began to hold a hearing in order to establish a public record of the issues. This is not the way democracy works. This is suppression of free speech, and we abhor that in other countries but ODNR is practicing that here in Athens.