Activists across Ohio are preparing for a weekend of activities in the northeast part of the state. On Saturday and Sunday, July 27th and 28th, at the First Congregational Church in Ravenna, there will be two days of trainings designed to give us the tools we can use to build a powerful movement that will achieve our right to clean air and water and democracy. At the “Don’t Frack Ohio 2” Rally in Warren on July 29th we will tell our policymakers that we do not want to be a fracking wasteland. Music and info at 11:30 and the rally starts at 1:30 at the Trumbull County Courthouse in Warren.
The post below was originally submitted as a letter to the editor of the Record-Courier.
In January of this year a drilling operation in St. Marys Township (Auglaize County) suffered a significant spill. The county’s Emergency Management Agency (EMA) director, Troy Anderson, was unable to obtain any information about it. No one from the agency knew what was in the spill, its volume, or any other basic information required to safely clean it up.
Anderson had this to say about his agency’s inability to assess the damage: “EMA has no paperwork on this, and we should have had. This is no different than a factory…we should have a list of any hazardous conditions at the site, a drawing, how it operates and who to call in an emergency.” But unlike the spill, his not knowing what was happening was no accident.
The federal Emergency Planning and Community Right to Know Act (EPCRA) of 1986 established basic hazardous chemical inventory reporting, and in 1988 Ohio passed a more stringent law (now in chapter 3750 of the Ohio Revised Code). Unfortunately, in 2001 Ohio House Bill 94 (HB 94) opened up a loophole stating that companies which have filed well log and annual production statements to the Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR) have satisfied the inventory reporting requirement.
The spill at St. Marys shows how problematic that loophole is in the real world. Instead of having hard copies available in case of emergency, counties are expected to cobble together their own hazardous chemical inventories for each operation based on much more general production reports and logs. If for some reason they don’t have even that skimpier information at the time of an emergency, their only recourse is to navigate the ODNR website trying to track it down. In practice emergency planners and first responders are essentially blind when confronted with an actual spill.
Last year Ohio’s Senate Bill 315 (SB 315) put communities even further in the dark by making it more difficult for doctors and nurses to obtain chemical information in an emergency, and also by placing a gag order on them prohibiting them from disclosing those chemicals. So even if medical personnel responding to a chemical contamination know exactly what has spilled, and what danger it poses to the wider community, they are prohibited from letting anyone know.
The oil and gas industry claims a trade secret exemption for the gag rule, saying that their proprietary formulas need to be protected. Spokespeople often compare their trade secrets to that of popular colas, but no one ever had to be evacuated from a Pepsi spill. These toxic cocktails pose a real risk to the communities where they are used. Neighborhoods that might bear the brunt of those hazards have a more urgent claim on knowing the composition of those fluids than the companies have in keeping the formula from competitors and maximizing profits.
In response to the spill at St. Marys the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency ruled that HB 94 violated the EPCRA. If HB 94 violates federal law then SB 315 would seem to be untenable as well. If, as the Record-Courier editorialized Tuesday, Portage County is indeed going to become Ohio’s fracking dump, then we need to take a hard look at what the consequences of sweetheart legislation and industry-friendly regulation might be for us.
The spill at St. Marys shows just how weakened emergency preparedness has become in Ohio, and that weakness is by design. It’s time to change the design. Substantial reform or outright repeal of HB 94 and SB 315 needs to be one of the most pressing tasks of our elected representatives.