Local Ohio Officials Strike Back Against 'Audacity' of Fossil Fuel Industry

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Local Ohio Officials Strike Back Against 'Audacity' of Fossil Fuel Industry

Letter signed by more than 100 officials calls for Gov. Kasich 'to stand up for the right of all communities to determine whether, where, and how this dirty drilling is conducted within their own borders'

Voters in Ohio have approved more than 30 local fracking bans across the state, including four last November. (Photo: bill baker/flickr/cc)

"Across Ohio, fracking is expanding at a frenzied pace, into our backyards and farmlands, next door to our hospitals and schools, and into the pristine and wild acres that provide drinking water and recreational opportunities for Ohioans."

So says a letter sent by more than 100 elected officials from communities across the state to Ohio Gov. John Kasich this week, urging him "to stand up for the right of all communities to determine whether, where, and how this dirty drilling is conducted within their own borders."

The letter (pdf) declares that fracking operations in Ohio "have contaminated water, put residents' health at risk, and turned rural landscapes into industrial zones"—all reasons that have led voters to approve more than 30 local fracking bans across the state, including four last November.

"The notion that our communities have the right to bar or limit activities which threaten public health or the quality of life of their residents has a long tradition in Ohio law. Yet the oil and gas industry has the audacity to insist that this basic principle of local control should not apply to its operations."
—100+ local Ohio officials

Signed by mayors, county commissioners, city councilors, and other local elected officials, it comes in response to attempts by the oil and gas industry to strike back against such measures, both in Ohio and nationwide.

In its February ruling on a case where the Ohio Department of Natural Resources allowed a company to drill in an Akron suburb without city officials' approval, the Ohio Supreme Court said that state officials, not local ones, have the power to regulate "methods of mining, weighing, measuring and marketing coal, oil, gas, and all other materials."

One of the signers of the Environment Ohio letter, James O'Reilly, a law professor at the University of Cincinnati and a councilman in the Hamilton County city of Wyoming, told the Cleveland Plain Dealer that the Supreme Court decision showed the influence of the Statehouse oil and gas lobby in Columbus.

As Common Dreams reported at the time, a subsequent Columbus Dispatch analysis revealed that two of the justices behind the pro-industry fracking decision were the beneficiaries of that same industry's largesse, in the form of sizable campaign contributions. 

More recently, in another blow to anti-fracking activists, the Cuyahoga County Court dismissed a class action lawsuit filed by Mothers Against Drilling in Our Neighborhood (MADION) and its individual members against the state of Ohio, the city of Broadview Heights, and two energy companies.

With 67 percent of the vote, the residents of Broadview Heights in November 2012 adopted a Community Bill of Rights codifying their right to local, democratic self-governance, and rights to water and a healthy environment—banning fracking as a violation of those rights.

But in his dismissal, the judge cited the state Supreme Court decision in stating that the community's Bill of Rights was preempted by state law.

Responding to the latest setback, the Pennsylvania-based Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund said in a statement:

Yesterday's decision in the class action lawsuit further reveals what more and more people are coming to realize: our existing structure of law denies local, democratic self-governance, it denies communities the authority to protect themselves from fracking, and it denies communities the authority to protect their water and the natural environment.

This week's letter to Gov. Kasich employs a similar argument. "The notion that our communities have the right to bar or limit activities which threaten public health or the quality of life of their residents has a long tradition in Ohio law," its authors insist. "Yet the oil and gas industry has the audacity to insist that this basic principle of local control should not apply to its operations."

However, the Cincinnati Enquirer warned, "don't expect much change."

"As you know, the governor cannot unilaterally repeal laws," Kasich spokesman Rob Nichols told the Plain-Dealer on Wednesday, saying of the letter-writers: "They may wish to consider directing their attention to the Ohio General Assembly or the Ohio Supreme Court."

But James O'Reilly, the law professor and councilman, said that even if Kasich doesn't step up, local communities are still not powerless.

"Even if we're stuck with the court's decision, and the governor is going to side with the oil and gas industry, there are several steps we can take that are still valid," O'Reilly said.

According to the Plain Dealer, he recommended using local ordinances to enforce road weight limits on fracking trucks in an effort to prevent the degradation of bridges, culverts and roads; enforcing local noise ordinances and curfews to limit drilling operations to daylight hours, and prevent drilling 24 hours a day, seven days a week; and to enforce air quality ordinances that restrict air emissions that could aggravate childhood asthma.

"It's important to look at all of the alternatives because it's unlikely any one solution will work," O'Reilly said. "We need to get back our authority to protect the public."

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