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Monroe County Fracking Disaster: Little progress made, few lessons learned in the year since major fracking accident in Ohio

Ohio Environmental Council, July 7, 2015

Part 2

Read part one here.

Last week I revisited the fracking chemical fire and resulting fish kill that occurred one year ago in Monroe County. You heard some of the stories of local residents, learned about how the accident started, and gained insight into the hampered emergency response efforts. Now I’ll dig in a little deeper into the state’s response – or lack thereof – in the year following this event.

Missed opportunity to fix Ohio law

The Statoil fracking fire and resulting water contamination exposed serious problems with Ohio law. Foremost, first responders, key agencies responding to the event, and drinking water utilities did not have a complete list of all of the chemicals on the site. The Columbus Dispatch reported that “both the Ohio and US EPAs waited 5 days to learn what made up the proprietary chemicals that were on the well pad during the fire…”

That lack of communication not only hindered the US and Ohio EPA’s response, but kept downstream drinking water suppliers in New Martinsville, Ohio from knowing what chemicals may have entered their drinking water supply. Halliburton, the company hired by Statoil to frack the horizontal well, provided a partial list up front that included most of the chemicals. Other chemical information, protected by Ohio’s trade-secrets law, was omitted.

How can this be? Well, there was a provision slipped into the Governor’s energy bill (SB 315) at the eleventh hour in 2012,  allowing the chief of the Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR) Division of Oil and Gas to receive, but NOT share trade secret protected chemicals, even in the case of emergencies (Revised Code 1509.10J2).

The OEC just spent the last 5 months urging the Ohio General Assembly to fix this major problem in Ohio law. I give credit to the Governor for including language to close this loophole in his version of the budget bill. A little bit of kudos goes to the Senate for including language to allow trade secret chemical information to be shared with drinking water utilities in their version. And shame on the Ohio House for stripping  all of the language – which would have required sharing trade secret chemicals with the Ohio EPA, drinking water utilities and emergency responders DURING EMERGENCIES –  from their version of the bill.

On top of this fretful news, the industry also managed to achieve language in the budget bill giving them an exemption from federal chemical reporting requirements under the Emergency and Community Right-to-Know (EPCRA) law. Basically, the language will allow the ODNR to interrupt direct reporting of lists of hazardous and extremely hazardous chemicals to the State Emergency Response commission, local emergency planning committees and local firefighters.

This reporting is required by all industries using certain thresholds of chemicals annually and within 60 or 90 days of setting up a facility (depending on whether the chemicals are hazardous or extremely hazardous). Without this information going directly to first responders and emergency planners, these brave public servants will have one more barrier in place when they arrive on scene to battle a chemical spill or other emergency.

Missed opportunity to upgrade Ohio’s regulations

While the state has moved quickly to support natural gas through fracking – we have permitted almost 2,000 wells in Ohio since the end of 2011 – ODNR has yet to formally draft rules for hydraulic fracturing operations. Most importantly, in the aftermath of the fracking fire, ODNR should have prioritized putting in place rules on spill prevention and containment.

It was clear from the US EPA report and the Ohio EPA draft District Office Investigation Report,  that the industry did not have in place any earthen berm or other spill containment system before the chemical fire occurred and that had they, the impacts of the accident may have been curtailed. According to the Ohio EPA draft report, the Statoil well pad “was not constructed with secondary containment and plans were made [during the emergency response] to establish a berm that would contain the fluids (flow back/fresh water)…”  In commenting on the ODNR rules, we will continue to urge that the agency prioritize the writing and implementation of spill prevention and containment rules.

Has the company been held accountable?

In the year since the frack fire, we have yet to see a formal or draft report from ODNR, Division of Oil and Gas on the accident and how the agency will move forward given the problems that agencies and first responders encountered in those 5 days of emergency response. [N1] Unfortunately, we also did not hear the Director of ODNR stand up to defend improvements to chemical disclosure laws during his testimony in the Ohio budget bill hearings.

We are pleased to see at least a draft report from the Ohio EPA on the accident, but this will not be enough to make the company accountable for their potential negligence. ODNR should make it top priority in the last half of 2015 to issue a report covering these issues. This is the only vehicle for the state of Ohio and the affected communities to receive compensation and for the state to determine whether they can issue penalties and fines or future operational orders on the company.

Where are we one year after?

Historically, ecological disasters have been the driving force behind major pieces of environmental legislation. The burning of the Cuyahoga River is credited with bringing about the Clean Water Act and the near extinction of bison and the disappearance of the passenger pigeon for the first wildlife conservation efforts which lead to the Endangered Species Act.

For those living in the gas lands of southeastern Ohio and New Martinsville, West Virginia, the fracking fire was an environmental disaster that blatantly called for reforms to Ohio’s laws around fracking chemical disclosure. But for many in the General Assembly, the message wasn’t obvious.

The good news is that as citizens and advocates we have the ability to call for the change that we see is needed. Let’s mobilize and tell our state lawmakers that we can’t wait another day to fix the chemical reporting loopholes that still exist in Ohio law.

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