Last summer the Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR) announced plans to approve seven toxic fracking waste injection wells for a single site in our county. Many citizens were alarmed by this, and at the time I posted on some of our fruitless attempts to get ODNR (in the person of geologist Tom Tomastik) to have a public hearing during the comment period. Instead we were promised an informational meeting at some point.
ODNR finally held it this last Thursday – nine months later, and about a 50 minute drive from the community where the wells will be permitted. Department officials assured residents that they really tried to find a good place:
Mark Bruce of ODNR’s Office of Communications, said the state tries to make such information sessions “as convenient as possible.” He said Wingfoot Lake State Park was the closest state facility with adequate meeting space.
The meeting really should have been held in the impacted community. Even if some technicality in the bowels of the Ohio Revised Code might justify having it so far away, it really is not in the spirit of public service to require citizens concerned about a major event in their town to travel far outside it to attend a meeting. (It also raises the question of who the rules are written to serve.)
In addition, ODNR does not appear to know our area very well. In last summer’s post I noted how they printed their public notice on the Soinski wells in the largely unknown Portage County Legal News rather than the county’s largest daily newspaper, the Record Courier. We are a friendly people here in Portage county; if ODNR had trouble locating a suitable facility in Nelson we would have been happy to help find one.
The department also made it clear that those who did make the trek would not be welcome:
ODNR is also stressing that crowd size and activities will be strictly controlled.
The release notes that only small personal items and purses will be allowed in the lodge, that all bags may be subject to inspection by law enforcement, and that no video cameras, demonstrations, signs or banners will be allowed inside. The fire marshal’s room occupancy limit will be enforced.
Because nothing says “transparent and citizen-friendly public office” like strict control of residents and not allowing them to take pictures at a public meeting. Also, the “no signs or banners” verbiage looks like a response to the informational meeting held in Athens last November. Citizens there objected to the format when it was announced:
Critics of injection wells have argued that the open house format, in which various informational booths are made available to the public, is inferior to the public hearing format, in which citizens can stand up and voice their opinions to state officials and the rest of the crowd in attendance. (ODNR still takes written comments even under the open house approach, however.)
In a news release, the Athens County Fracking Action Network and Appalachia Resist!, two groups opposed to hydraulic fracturing for oil and gas, and to new injection wells to store the wastewater from such operations, slammed ODNR for not holding a genuine public hearing.
“An ‘open house’ is no substitute for a public hearing,” the release maintains. “At a public hearing, residents bring their concerns publicly before ODNR and all assembled, speaking one at a time in an organized fashion so that every comment can be heard by all. Most importantly, at a public hearing, public comments are entered into the legal record and can thus help hold ODNR accountable to the public.”
By contrast, the release alleges, at an open house citizens “are asked to mill around a large room, talking to various ODNR representatives in a casual one-on-one manner,” and comments don’t become part of legal record, “so ODNR cannot be held accountable to objections raised.”
When the event was held, people showed up with signs and yelled, which sounds awful. But consider: State Republicans are vocally in favor of fracking. Democrats – with a handful of exceptions – use a rhetoric of strategic ambiguity. The regulatory agency is, well, you’re reading about it now. The industry is flush with cash and can air as many “natural gas: America’s clean energy future!” commercials as it wants. When all you’ve got is your voice, you’ll use it as best you can.
So ODNR responded by making the information sessions even less useful by banning anything that might register or document strong opposition.
Our session began, as the one in Athens did, with a set of tables in the back that had ODNR officials on hand to talk, and some placards next to the tables. They had titles like “Seismic networks. Monitoring seismic activity across Ohio,” “Proposed class II injection wells (Portage) in relation to existing Ohio wells,” “Class II injection well surface facility. Components and checklist,” and other generalities.
One of the tables did look relevant, with a groundwater yield map in relation to proposed injection wells. But without the ability to sit down and study it, check it against other resources, maybe consult local experts, and so on, we couldn’t really do much more than look at it.
What we really wanted was to have our questions addressed, and one of the strongest impressions from the meeting was citizens trying to get answers and being turned away. The audio clips below are some of the exchanges between ordinary Ohioans and ODNR officials. Except for the county commissioner at the end the cast of characters is just regular citizens.
The first two clips have a lot of background noise and are hard to hear – we don’t have high end equipment and typically bring along our own humble devices or what we can borrow from someone else. But citizens can clearly be heard asking about the Soinski wells and being assured that they will be discussed in detail during the presentation (transcript).
Also listen to how the clip ends – with officials trying to stop the audio recording. This, along with the ban on video recording, may have been a violation of Ohio’s Sunshine Laws. The manual states (p. 89):
A public body cannot prohibit the public from audio or video recording a public meeting. A public body may, however, establish reasonable rules regulating the use of recording equipment, such as requiring equipment to be silent, unobtrusive, self-contained, and self-powered to limit interference with the ability of others to hear, see, and participate in the meeting.
Yet that is exactly what ODNR tried to do. Both the audio recorders were hand held, battery powered devices. They met exactly the requirements outlined in the reasonable rules (as would have the video recorders we were told in advance we were not allowed to bring), but ODNR tried to shut us down. After we objected and asked to know who was doing this and why they backed down, but it never should have come to that (transcript).
During this part of the program I spoke to ODNR’s Tom Hill and tried to emphasize the inadequacy of public records requests in regard to fracking. The stakes are high for us; we’re concerned about our community’s quality of life, and at a minimum we should be able to keep track of how well our state is regulating this activity. That means being able to review inspections here and elsewhere in order to see just how effective it is. Having to do a separate records request every time is burdensome – and unnecessary in the Internet age. The information should be online (transcript).
The database referenced is here; you can decide for yourself how simple it is to use. I gave it a try, going to the Permit and Plug List and running a report with the search criteria County=Portage and Township=Nelson. It came back with 25 records, only one of them for Nelson (and 12 for Wexford, Pennsylvania). It doesn’t really seem to be designed with the goal of making it easy for Ohioans to connect and find out what’s happening in their backyards.
After a half an our or so everyone took their seats and Tom Tomastik began his presentation. It was a canned Power Point slide show about why fracking is fine and how ODNR is on top of everything. I tried to type out some of the slides as they went by (remember: no pictures allowed, because reasons). Some were technical-ish, showing the calculation of maximum allowable injection pressure in wells, for example. But as with the groundwater map placard, that sort of thing is unhelpful without the ability to track down some details.
Others were just kind of weird. There were a couple of burly men slides: pictures of workers with titles like “setting the tube and packer” and “conducting integrity test,” which did not convey any information I could gather. There were a couple of don’t-worry-your-pretty-little-heads slides with titles like “Bacteria in a water well” and “Natural gas in a water well,” making the unremarkable and uncontested points that bacteria and methane can and do naturally occur in water. None of the slides addressed the Soinski wells, though.
The presentation lasted a little over half an hour, at which point the public was allowed to submit statements. Oh, and Tomastik walked out too. I went outside a little after the statements began and saw him standing around talking to someone. About ten minutes later someone else noticed and asked about it (transcript).
The “he’s in the restroom” bit is really irritating. He simply walked out. He may have stopped by the restroom at some point, but he was not around while people were speaking. It was an insult to citizens who made the trip, and the attempt to cover for him was a cheap and obvious bit of dishonesty.
The people who made public statements covered a variety of topics. This speaker submitted very specific questions about the Soinski wells during the public comment period and never got them answered. She asked them once again during the meeting and once again never got any answers. If you only listen to one audio clip, make it this one (transcript).
Another speaker noted the pro-industry slant of the presentation and asked about the different kinds of methane – biogenic at shallower depths and lower temperatures, thermogenic at high temperatures deep underground – that can occur in wells. Wells near fracking operations appear to have higher levels of thermogenic methane (transcript).
This reminded me of the Statehouse at the start of the SB 5 fight. It was another example where the police presence seemed greatly out of proportion. As I wrote at the time: “The trooper presence was overwhelming; far beyond what public safety required. There was a riot truck, canine, and a couple troopers were actually wearing full riot gear.” State officials seem to like having a big show of force when it looks like democracy is about to break out.
We had a local official present too, Portage County Commissioner Kathleen Chandler. She made the shortest statement of the evening: “What I want to know is what’s happening in Portage County, specifically in Nelson.” Unfortunately, that is still as much a mystery as it was before ODNR stopped by.
In the end it was about what most of us expected, but it still served an important purpose. Getting the chance to see all of this live and in person – the questionable approach to sunshine laws, officials walking out on us just as we were about to speak, the show of state force that cowed at least once citizen into silence, the refusal to address the single issue that prompted all of the outcry in the first place – all of it was useful. It allowed us to directly see what many of us have come to suspect through our long distance interactions with the office: That as an agency it is contemptuous of us. So it ended up being a very helpful informational session after all.
Photo from Bosc d’Anjou licensed under Creative Commons