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.