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Bill Poised to Cripple State Enforcement Against Fracking Polluters

Trent Dougherty, December 23, 2014

Group calls on Attorney General to provide support for Governor’s initial strong proposal to penalize law breaker

Columbus, OH – Today the Ohio Senate Agriculture Committee resumes hearings on HB490, having heard last week from top Kasich Administration officials urging the Senate to restore much-needed improvements to oil & gas law enforcement.

Governor Kasich proposed the HB 490 fixes to oil and gas enforcement in response to incidents such as Ben Lupo’s 2013 dumping of thousands of gallons of fracking wastewater into the Mahoning River near Youngstown.  However, the Ohio House has eliminated most of Governor Kasich’s improvements from the current version of the bill and even further rolled back penalties found in

This past Friday, the Ohio Environmental Council sent a letter to Attorney General Mike DeWine – the State’s chief law enforcement officer – urging his office to weigh in on the debate.  “The Governor’s plan would have brought the hard hammer of justice against the most flagrant violators of human health and safety laws,” said Trent Dougherty, Legal Affairs Director of Ohio Environmental Council.  “The amended bill replaces that hammer with a tattered white flag.”

The Governor’s proposal, part of his Mid-Budget Review (MBR) and introduced in the General Assembly as House Bill 490 this spring, increased penalties for oil and gas and brine disposal violations and empowered regulators to review the history of violations of companies looking to drill in the state.

Since proposing these advancements to the Ohio House of Representatives, Ohio has been inundated with headline-grabbing fracking accidents, disasters, and tragedies.  Ohio’s oil fields and gas lands have recently experienced: an explosion in a pipeline transporting toxic substances through Monroe County;  evacuation of homes within a two mile radius of a leaking well-head in Jefferson County; a worker killed in an explosion at a Noble County fracking site; and a well-pad chemical fire in Monroe County that engulfed 20 semi trucks, triggered 30 explosions, and prompted the evacuation of 25 homes and resulted in a 54,000 gallon chemical spill into a tributary of the Ohio River.

Yet, as HB490 reemerged in the Ohio House in mid-November, changes to the bill have eviscerated the Governor’s proposal to toughen the law on fracking violations.  The amended House version of the bill deleted many improvements in enforcement of Oil & Gas Law proposed by Kasich, including:

  • Expanding ODNR authority to suspend operations and revoke permits for dangerous and harmful violations;
  • Allowing ODNR to deny permits to violators that have failed to fix existing violations;
  • Requiring full background checks of owners and key employees of companies and subsidiaries who want to drill or dispose of brine in Ohio;
  • Increasing civil penalties on fracking law violators;
  • Boosting criminal monetary and imprisonment penalties for the most flagrant polluters;

Adding injury to this insult to the Governors proposal, the House further rolled back basic enforcement tools that are currently in law, such as

  • Removing penalties for violations of health and safety rules;
  • Eliminating minimum civil penalties for a number of violations of the Oil and Gas Law; and
  • Eliminating penalties for many continuing violations.

The bill is now before the Ohio Senate Agriculture Committee, where it is expected to be voted on in the next two weeks.  Ohio Department of Natural Resources Director Jim Zerhringer testified, last week, that “ODNR and the people of Ohio have been faced with instances where a company or its employee made a conscious decision to violate the law.” The Director of Ohio EPA, Craig Butler added that it is important this law be updated to ensure Ohio does not have to rely on the federal government to respond to violations that occur within our borders.  OEC wholeheartedly agrees with the Administration, and is urging the Senate to return these basic enforcement tools to ensure the safety of Ohioans.

“OEC continues to advocate for a number of air, land, water, and property owner protections in Ohio’s fracking laws.  However, even the best protections fail if state regulators are stripped of the legal authority to adequately enforce the law,” Dougherty added.  “The Attorney General must act swiftly to make certain that the legislature restores strong penalties to stop flagrant or repeat polluters dead in their tracks, and to ensure protection of health and safety.”

According to OEC’s letter to DeWine, the group is concerned that the future of the state’s enforcement capabilities will be jeopardized.  In its current form, HB 490 risks the health of communities, gives aid and comfort to flagrant polluters, and puts at a disadvantage those in the industry who follow Ohio’s safety regulations.