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ODNR official: we’ll let the public know what’s happening after you can no longer object

Cross posted from Pruning Shears.

The fracking industry has dramatically increased its activity in Portage county recently. In some cases the activity is unmistakably tangible (more on that next week), but the real action at the moment seems to be preparing the ground for the deluge. The paperwork is coming in fast and furious, so much so that we are now one of the top ten counties in the state for fracking.

Those of us concerned about that have found using the tools theoretically available to us can be a daunting task. The attempt to learn more about the Soinski Wells really brought the point home. For instance, permit applications are supposed to be submitted to the largest local paper in the effected area. Instead they were published in the Portage County Legal News.

Let me tell you something about the Portage County Legal News: I cannot tell you anything about the Portage County Legal News. I have lived in Portage county all my life (minus two years) and until the Soinski Odyssey I had never heard of the Portage County Legal News. There is not even a print edition of the Portage County Legal News. The Portage County Legal News is the best kept secret in Portage county. Anyone who has lived here longer than a week could have told ODNR that the Record Courier is Portage county’s largest general circulation newspaper – with a print edition and everything.

A minor outcry ensued, and the applications went into the appropriate paper. Incidentally, this is now part of activists’ daily routine: checking the legal notices in the paper to see what latest outrage is planned. Similarly, learning how to read permits, pore over maps, check local leasing records, and so on are developing skill sets among activists. A big part of the fight involves eye glazing tedium. That’s not a complaint, just a description.

Several citizens contacted ODNR Geologist Tom Tomastik with questions. One was procedural – did the fifteen day public comment period begin on the applications date from the Portage County Legal News announcement or from their announcement in a proper outlet? But there were also questions on the details in the applications. There appeared to be some information missing in the application – there seemed to be more there on the ground than the application described. I emailed Tomastik on Sunday:

It is my understanding that there is supposed to be an informational meeting on the Portage county wells listed in the public notices below. I would like to get some clarification on this.

First of all, is it true that there will be a meeting?

If so, will the meeting be held during the public comment period? That would be the most useful; having it after would be like closing the barn door after the horse left.

Will this be a public hearing, or just an informational meeting? It would be much better to have an actual public hearing.

I urge you to hold any session at a time when the most people could attend: on a weekday evening or a weekend.

On Tuesday he responded:

Below is the link to the rules regarding public notice requirements for Class II injection well applications under Section 1501: 9-3-06 (E) (c) of the Ohio Administrative Code. Please read this section. No meeting is held until after the end of the public comment period. A Public Hearing is only required when the objections are relevant to public health, or safety, or good conservation practices. The chief of this Division rules upon the validity of each objection. Since we are receiving a number of comments regarding the Soinski applications, I have agreed to hold a public meeting to do a presentation about Class II injection well applications and answer questions regarding the public’s concerns.

The “after the end of the public comment period” part really doesn’t seem good, so I responded:

I’d like some clarification on this, if possible. The greatest urgency in our community is right now – during the comment period. Being able to ask questions and (hopefully) get answers will help us to make more informed comments while the state is accepting them. The value of any additional information we learn will be greatly diminished once the comment period is over.

Would you please consider meeting with our community during this very brief and crucial window?

To which he responded the next day:

We are planning on having a public meeting after all comments are received and the deadline is passed. That is how the rules are set up under the Ohio Administrative Code, 1501: 9-3-06 (E) (c).

At that point it started getting difficult to give Mr. Tomastik the benefit of the doubt; his reply was completely unresponsive. I decided to give it one last try though:

Yes, I was clear on the rules and your intentions. My request was this: that you hold the public meeting during the comment period so citizens can make the most informed comments possible.

As far as I know you are not legally enjoined from doing this, and it would be of much greater value to the community. As I wrote before, having the meeting after the comment period smacks of closing the barn door after the horse is gone. We need to be able to ask questions now – during the comment period.

And that’s where we stand at the moment: going back and forth via email while the comment period moves to a close. This is your democracy on fracking, kids.

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