New Group Calls Water Protection From Fracking A ‘Civil Rights Issue’

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A newly-formed activist group wants Athens City Council members to pass an ordinance banning fracking in order to protect the area's watershed.

Group organizer Richard McGinn says the group, formally known as The Emergency Community Bill of Rights Committee to Protect Athens' Water Supply By Prohibiting Fracking and Fracking Waste Disposal in, at or near The Aquifer Serving Athens, also goes by the Athens Community Bill of Rights Committee.

It only just formed in November, but the group is already making plans to involve city leaders in their fight.

McGinn says the committee focuses on protecting air and water quality as a matter of civil rights.

Fracking proponents have said that it is a profitable industry that will bring much needed jobs to the state.

State environmental officials have said the process is regulated and safe.

"All of these come together in what I call a 'utopian fantasy' that we can get this resource out of the ground without any consequences to the environment, without any ill effects on the environment. It's just not true," said McGinn. "There's so much overwhelming evidence that this activity is extremely fraught with risks for the health and safety of citizens that we have decided that we're going to work as hard as we can, and for as long as it takes to prevent this from happening anywhere in Athens or in our watershed."

The group is still in the early stages, but McGinn says he's already made two presentations to city council.

Now, they are working through the language of the proposed ordinance.

Athens City Council previously passed a resolution in late 2011 expressing concern over the possible effects fracking could have on the city.

Mayor Paul Wiehl said he wanted a moratorium in place until the matter could be studied further, but at the time, admitted the city had little jurisdiction over oil and gas drillers, according to language in the Ohio Revised Code.

Recent findings from the Athens County Strategic Advisory Committee on Hydraulic Fracturing, a group charged by the Athens County Commissioners to study potential fracking effects, noted that the limestone in Athens County is more likely to be used for fracking wastewater disposal than for oil and gas drilling.

In mid-November, the state Division of Oil and Gas Resources issued permits for two deep injection wells in Athens County, as well as two in nearby Washington County.

Eventually, McGinn says his group wants to put a referendum on the November ballot to give citizens a chance to weigh in.

"The whole issue has to be aired in public because information needs to be given to everybody so they can make a decision," said McGinn.

But, if the group isn't able to go through city council to get the issue on the ballot, they'll seek other ways.

"The committee can easily put an ordinance like this on the ballot just by collecting signatures. In that case it's called an initiative rather than a referendum, and we're certainly prepared to do that. We could collect signatures all over town and we could do our campaigning while collecting signatures and then the issue would be on the ballot for November just the same," said McGinn.

The group also plans to approach leaders in Nelsonville, Logan and Albany.

"All these communities, we will ask them to consider adopting similar proposals so that fracking and the environmental consequences of fracking and the disposal of fracking wastes will not occur in our area," said McGinn.

McGinn says the committee is different from other "fractivist" groups, such as Appalachia Resist or the Athens Community Fracking Action Network, because those organizations are protesting fracking on a state level.

The Bill of Rights group is tackling the issue of water quality protection at a federal level, but several members of the group are actively involved in other fracking protest organizations.