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Council puts drilling ban on hold for now

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At the Aug. 6 Village Council meeting, a group of citizens urged Council to be the first municipality in the state to ban oil and gas drilling in town in an effort to protect local water.

“We’re asserting the rights of citizens to say no to unwanted industrial activity,” said Vickie Hennessy of Gas and Oil Drilling Awareness and Education, or GODAE, to Council. The group presented an ordinance, drafted with the assistance of the the nonprofit Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund, or CELDF, that would outlaw gas and oil drilling, fracking, and the placement of injection wells in the village. While the likelihood of oil and gas drilling in the village is small, geologists have identified southwestern Ohio as a good place to locate injection wells that contain fracking waste, due to this area’s geological formation, GODAE members said.

“Injection wells are the big scare. They’re coming to southwestern Ohio, “ Hennessy said. “These wells don’t need a lot of space. They could be in a backyard.”

Other GODAE representatives at the meeting were Dimi Reber, Joe Cronin and Peggy Koebernick. The group also presented a petition with the signatures of 350 villagers who support the ordinance.

The six-page ordinance asserts the need for the ban due to the vulnerability of the local water supply. According to a 2003 Ohio EPA Sustainability Report, the Yellow Springs aquifer has been identified as “high risk” due to its porous and unconfined nature. According to the ordinance, “many communities across the nation have already experienced contamination of their streams, lakes, rivers and other sources of drinking water as a result of fracking and placement of injection wells…”

On Monday night, Council tabled the ordinance, and according to Council President Judith Hempfling, will take it up again at the Aug. 20 meeting. Council needs more time to study the issue, and gather information on how other communities have addressed the drilling and fracking issues, she said. On Monday, Council members Rick Walkey and Gerry Simms were absent.

In a memo to Council, the Yellow Springs Law Director John Chambers recommended against passing the ordinance. Because Ohio has passed legislation giving a state agency the sole authority to regulate oil and gas drilling, including fracking, a municipality is conflicting with state law if it bans such activity, Chambers wrote.

“It appears to be a violation of Ohio law at this time and Big Oil could create litigation that could cause huge economic costs to the Village,” he said.

But the law director’s job is different from that of Village Council, according to Emelyn Lybarger from the CELDF.

“The solicitor has taken the oath to protect the municipal corporation, but not to protect citizens,” she said. At issue in the ordinance, she said, is “Who has rights? Corporate directors who live hundreds of miles away or people who live here?”

The GODAE ordinance includes a citizens’ bill of rights, which asserts that, based on the Declaration of Independence and the Ohio Constitution’s recognition that “All political power is inherent in the people,” oil and gas drilling and the placement of injection wells in town would be banned “because those actions cannot be achieved without violating the rights of residents and communities or endangering their health, safety and welfare…”

The ordinance states that the state has violated federal law by asserting oil and gas companies’ rights over those of citizens.

“We’re saying that the people have rights and the state government is going against federal law and taking those rights away,” Lybarger said. “We’re asking, did the state act within its legal authority?”

But challenging the state in court is not the purpose of the ordinance, Lybarger said. Rather, the CELDF strategy is an “organizing strategy” in an effort to help municipalities band together to counter oil and gas corporate power.

One hundred and thirty communities in the country have passed similar bans, she said, although none of those towns were in Ohio. Asked by Council member Karen Wintrow why Ohio municipalities have not followed suit, Emily said that one, Mansfield, has an ordinance on its ballot in November.

But someone has to take the first step, GODAE representatives said. While Reber said she believes the threat of drilling is real, even more important is the symbolic value of the ordinance.

“It’s significant to make this statement,” Reber said, citing environmental effects on air and water that transcend municipal boundaries. “If other communities are getting fracked, we’re not immune from the effects. It’s our responsibility to begin putting the word out.”

Council members expressed their need for more time on the issue, and their concern over the very real threat of litigation.

“This is an issue that’s very difficult to know what to do,” Hempfling said. “We have limited resources and need to think seriously about getting sued. Also, if the Village plays a role, what’s the best role to play?”

This is not the first instance of individuals or municipalities breaking a law, Lybarger said.

“How did the abolitionists reconcile breaking the law?” she said. “How about the African Americans who sat at lunch counters? Or women who broke the law in their effort to get the vote?”


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