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Ohio EPA Proposes “Free Pass” for Pipelines, Coal Mines: Agency to “look the other way” while streams and wetlands harmed.

An industry-cozy new rule proposed by the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency (OEPA) signals the agency’s abandonment of oversight responsibilities over oil and gas pipelines and coal mining operations.

That’s the charge leveled by environmental advocates concerning the OEPA’s proposed revisions to rules that require state review of projects that will harm Ohio waterways.

Mining and pipeline projects almost always threaten waterways with degradation and sometimes even total destruction through placement of fill material.  Under current Ohio law, OEPA must carefully examine these projects to ensure that destruction of wetlands and streams is avoided, minimized, or mitigated.

Without warning, the agency is abruptly proposing to revoke this decades’-long standard.

Curiously, OEPA is updating its wetland and stream rules even though updates are not required for several more years.  The timing and content of the changes leave little doubt that OEPA is simply doing favors for coal and fracking interests at the expense of the public and Ohio’s waterways.

“OEPA’s new rule instructs permit reviewers to just look the other way if a huge oil or coal project might harm a waterway and its wildlife.  The agency is taking a rubber-stamp process meant only for very small projects and improperly applying it to massive interstate pipelines and coal mining operations,” said Nathan Johnson, Attorney for the Ohio Environmental Council.

“Ohio’s current rules for protecting wetlands and streams are already weaker than those of West Virginia and Kentucky.  Gutting Ohio’s clean water rules, which, make no mistake, is exactly what Ohio EPA is proposing here, will put us far  behind our neighbors in wetland and stream protection,” added Johnson.

Quoted in the Columbus Dispatch on Monday, September 08, 2014, an Ohio EPA spokesperson stated the goal behind the agency’s rule revisions “is to preserve the strongest protections possible.”  This statement by OEPA could not be more misleading; unless, by “preserve” the agency means stuffing and displaying its hollow rules after they have been gutted.

An internal Ohio EPA email dated February 19, 2014, and obtained by OEC via public records request evidences the coal industry’s apparent influence over the drafting of the proposed modifications.  The email, written by an OEPA official, states that changes proposed by OEPA “mirror” the changes that arose from a discussion between OEPA and the Ohio Coal Association.  The email also concludes that the proposed changes could result in greater impacts to Ohio’s streams. (available upon request)

Ohio EPA’s proposed changes also eliminate the public’s ability to review and comment on many coal mining and shale pipeline projects that could harm or destroy streams and wetlands throughout the state.

“Don’t let OEPA fool you with claims of ‘increasing efficiency’ or ‘cutting red tape,’” said Johnson.  “If adopted, these rule changes would be a major give-away to coal mining and oil and gas interests – the agency would be abandoning its duty to protect water quality and the public interest. Period.”

OEPA held a public hearing on its proposed changes last Thursday, September 4th.  The OEC’s written testimony from the hearing is available here.  Written public comment is open through this Thursday, September 11.