Appalachian Basin

Ohio Anti-Shale Activists Overload First Responders With Avoidable Bureaucracy

Over the past week headlines have blared with proclamations like “Oil, gas production to get more scrutiny”, “Shale drillers must report chemicals”, “Ohio Drillers Can’t Dodge EPA Chemical Reporting Regs” and “Ohio Drillers Must Tell All.” There is one problem with all of these articles, though: they don’t tell the whole story.

The industry in Ohio has always followed the letter of the law and disclosed chemicals as required.  In fact, Ohio is actually a leader in making sure information for our first responders is provided in the quickest, easiest and most thorough way available.

That is, however, until those opposed to oil and gas development put Ohio back in the Stone Age.

In the days before computers ruled our lives and cell phones were only for those on Wall Street, Congress passed the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act of 1986 (EPCRA).  The intent of the law was to support our local emergency planners and responders with information concerning potential chemical hazards present in their communities.  In 1988, the Ohio General Assembly passed Substitute Senate Bill 367. The law, Chapter 3750, Emergency Planning of the Ohio Revised Code (ORC), provides for the implementation of EPCRA in Ohio

EPCRA charged the Local Emergency Planning Committee (LEPC) and State Emergency Response Commission (SERC) with four key responsibilities:

  • Write emergency plans to protect the public from chemical accidents;
  • Establish procedures to warn and, if necessary, evacuate the public in case of an emergency;
  • Provide citizens and local governments with information about hazardous chemicals and accidental releases of chemicals in their communities; and
  • Assist in the preparation of public reports on annual release of toxic chemicals into the air, water, and soil.

In regards to oil and gas development, companies had to submit in writing what chemicals were going to be on site during development and production of every well that met the threshold of EPCRA.  These reports had to go to the state as well as every local fire department and emergency responder where they were developing.  Imagine the paperwork each entity kept on file just for oil and gas development!

Fast forward to 2001, when the Ohio Legislature passed House Bill 94.  The law revolutionized the cumbersome filing each and every first responder, LEPC and SERC had to keep on the premises to follow the parameters set forth by EPCRA, specifically by moving all of the necessary filings to a website instead of on paper.  Imagine all of the information you need on a website instead of having to rummage through file cabinets in order to find the proper documentation.  It just simply makes perfect sense.

Thanks to the passage of House Bill 94, Ohio established an Oil and Gas Emergency Website at http://oilandgas.ohiodnr.gov/well-information/emergency-response.  The project was funded by the U.S. Department of Energy and Argonne Laboratories for use by fire departments and emergency response agencies to utilize a website to quickly disseminate information on well sites or tank batteries in case of an emergency.  This new website updated the paper filing method that was not as efficient as this new digital system.  As we all know in an emergency, every second matters.

This new website would be housed by the Ohio Department of Natural Resources in collaboration with SERC and LEPC. According to ODNR, the website was designed to:

  • Improve response times to oil and gas well emergencies by oil and gas well owners, state regulatory personnel and local emergency responders to reduce public health and environmental risks;
  • Facilitate full compliance with spill reporting requirements;
  • Eliminate burdensome Community-Right-To-Know paper reporting requirements while providing a more efficient, convenient and comprehensive information system for local officials.

In addition, the website provides an interactive GIS based system that allows first responders to determine locations of the well, the wells owner and contact information as well as Material Safety Data Sheets.  The project revolutionized EPCRA, bringing the program out of the 1980s and into the 21st century.

This project was heralded by groups for its innovative approach to improving response times to emergency situations.  In fact, in 2005 the State Review Oil and Natural Gas Environmental Regulation (STRONGER) program overview stated:

“Among other things, the website has been recognized at The Council of State
Governments, Midwestern Legislative Conference in July, 2004. The Review Team also wishes to recognize this website as an innovative approach to providing access to emergency response information to responders and the public alike.”- STRONGER, 2005 Ohio Program Review, p.12

Over the past 12 years, the Oil and Gas Emergency Website system developed in collaboration of ODNR and the Ohio Oil and Gas Energy Education Program has taught emergency responders about the many benefits of the system especially in the form of preplanning for emergencies just as emergency responders often preplan for all types of emergencies that could occur within their community.  Of course, this information was also available to the public if they requested it.

According to a recent letter to the editor by Ohio Fire Chiefs Association Director at Large, Brent Gates, this system and training by OOGEEP has worked well for the first responders.

But then everything changed.

Rep. Bob Hagan and Teresa Mills, an environmental activist, with the Buckeye Forrest Council, Progress Ohio and the Center for Health, Environment and Justice, complained earlier this year that Ohio was somehow not providing the necessary information as prescribed by law.  Ms. Mills wrote a letter to the U.S. EPA, incorrectly assuming that Ohio was not following EPCRA.  The truth of the matter is Ohio was going over and above what was prescribed in EPCRA, but of course knowing that would have required only minimal research, which gets in the way of securing headlines.

The truly unfortunate situation is that, since the U.S. EPA has not updated EPCRA, the law still calls for paper documents to be shared and stored with fire departments, ODNR and emergency first responders, SERCs and LEPCs.  Due to this outdated law, EPA agreed with Mills and now Ohio must require paper filings for each well in Ohio who meets EPCRA thresholds.

The irony of the situation is that a woman who works for an entity called the Buckeye Forest Council is requesting that more paper be used in lieu of online filings. But I suppose some people can’t see the forest through the trees, so to speak.

Now, companies will have to send all of their well information in paper form to remain in compliance, no matter how misguided the policy by U.S. EPA.  This backwards thinking was brought to Ohio by those so blinded by opposing oil and gas that they are actually consuming time and effort by our first responders that could be placed on projects that matter.

To recap: Thanks to two activists who vehemently oppose oil and gas development, Ohio is now taking a 27 year step backwards.  First responders, break out your old filing cabinets because, thanks to ignorance, you get to fill them up with useless paper that has already been digitally available for years and create a new fire hazard at your stations.

 

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