EP drilling debate far from finished

EAST PALESTINE – An oil and gas leasing proposal taken off the table at the last council meeting is still making waves in town, with residents going so far as to crowd council chambers with picket signs and speaking out during Monday’s meeting, despite the public portion having already passed.

The proposal by Councilman Don Elzer was to combine municipal property with residential property to offer to oil and gas companies for leasing. It is not being considered now since half of council voted to rescind that legislation at the last meeting. The 3-3 tie was broken by Mayor Margo Zuch.

Even so, the discussion continued.

Dan Scott of Alice Street and Rebecca Nelis of Malibu Drive were the only two on the meeting agenda to speak to council, but others voiced their opinions throughout the meeting from their seats.

Scott said other residents’ concerns about fracking, the process used during drilling for oil and gas, are not founded, and read aloud from previously published news articles backing up that claim.

Some of those articles included Morning Journal reports that appeared in Shale Play, studies conducted by Duke and Columbia universities, and online articles from the Fort Worth, Texas, newspapers reporting on the state’s injections wells and their link – or lack thereof – to earthquakes.

“Like I was told by somebody in the industry, ‘If we don’t do our job right, then we don’t have a job,'” he said.

According to him, and his reports, fracking has not caused any water contamination.

“It’s not me, it’s science, the Wall Street Journal, and everybody,” he said.

A Jan. 11 article in the Fort Worth, Texas, Star Telegram stated it is not certain whether injection wells are to blame for their earthquakes, although should a cluster happen near one, they cannot be ruled out.

Injection wells are used for the disposal of large amounts of water used and polluted in the drilling process.

According to information available on the Ohio Department of Natural Resources website there are 151,000 class II injection wells in the nation. Those wells are specifically for the disposal of brine and other fluids associated with oil and gas production.

Residents holding up signs at the council meeting called for a moratorium on all drilling in village limits, with most of the concern geared toward their health, should the public water source become contaminated.

Nelis asked what the procedure is for some issues making it to an election ballot and others not, and said issues that affect the entire community, such as the 2006 strip mining decision, should be on ballots.

“Somehow that became a council issue and they voted to ban strip mining. Why is that not a ballot issue?”

It was a development firm that was attempting to overturn the 1949 strip mining ban, and the 2006 council vote was tied 3-3, with the deciding vote cast by then-mayor Sunny Hull, who opted to keep the ban intact.

The matter was so controversial residents turned out to protest overturning the ban prior to the vote, and an Environmental Protection Agency expert was even called in for their opinion.

Current Councilman Jim Tyger participated in that vote and opted to keep the mining restriction in place.

Regarding the current drilling discussions, he said he wouldn’t be opposed to the village leasing its municipal property only, depending on the terms of that lease, and he is not in favor of a lease that would include surface drilling, meaning a rig would be located in town.

Whether the village will continue seeking a lease for its less than 200 acres of municipal property is still up in the air, although most of council appeared favorable of doing so.

In the meantime, residents like Kip Reeves say the issue is dividing the city.

“It sounds like you guys are pushing it. I’m telling you what I read and what I hear, I’m not saying I’m for it or against it, my feeling is it’s the responsibility of council to provide information to the people here. There isn’t a single person in this city who is an expert,” he said.

Reeves became upset and left the meeting after Zuch said he needed to be on the agenda to speak.

“I’m done, I’ve had it,” he said as he walked out.

Elzer said he was attempting to get information to the residents through a brochure explaining his proposal, but resident Tina Kosman argued it was only geared toward those in support of participating.

Some residents then turned their focus to councilmen Elzer and Fran Figley and how much property they own, indicating they would unfairly benefit from the group leasing.

Councilman Alan Cohen had initially suggested Elzer’s participation in a group lease would be unethical since he owned more property than others, and that question was turned into the Ohio Ethics Commission for review.

Village Solicitor Dave Powers said the commission determined it was not unethical.

A copy of that letter was provided to the Journal, and it states, “Council members who are village property owners do not have a conflict of interest if they were participate in the enactment of an ordinance that offers companies the ability to lease village property for oil and gas exploration and provides all village property owners the same opportunity to lease their property on uniform terms. However, it is important that council members, including those who are not property owners, have no financial interests that would place them in a position that is different from other village residents. For example, they must not be employed by, or have an investment with, a company that enters into oil and gas leases or profits from such leases.”

The letter was signed by staff advisory attorney John Rawski.

Cohen said he is pleased with the finding and how much property anyone on council owns should no longer be an issue.

“Everybody out there who is concerned about how much property I own or Don owns or Fran owns, that is not a question anymore. I was concerned about violating the ethics laws because everyone sitting up here owns real estate,” he said.

Elzer said continuing the discussion about his proposal was “ridiculous” since it’s no longer on the table. He then asked if the village should continue looking at leasing municipal property.

Councilwoman Endia Wisser said they should.

“I’m not concerned about my $500 for my measly property on West North Avenue,” she said, referring to what she could earn through the group leasing proposal.

She said with revenue through a lease for village property they could offer higher pay to EMTs, or put the money toward an equalization basin for the water treatment plant.

Powers is already authorized to seek out a lease on the village’s behalf and will continue to do so, he said, and cautioned that the chance of a lucrative lease being offered at this point for their property alone is slim though.

“There is virtually no leasing going on in our part of the county. That could change tomorrow, but right now as I’m sitting here there are no gas companies with their checkbooks open that are writing leases for … northern Columbiana County. I cannot figure out why that changed,” he said.