Report: United States

Ohio anti-fracking campaigners warn of pollution and earthquakes

Sarah Elzas

The US election is over but the issues are still there. In Ohio, seen as a key swing state during the campaign, the economy has been bolstered by a new kind of oil drilling, fracking. The eastern part of the state is already full of oil wells and this new kind of drilling is worrying many residents in and around Youngstown.


"This was a great place to live, but I don't even want to live here anymore, to be honest with you, I don't. I really don't," says a property owner in Ohio's rural Mahoning County.

An oil well is being drilled next door - a deep one, going down two kilometres into the shale rock, which needs to be fracked to release the oil and gas.

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Hydraulic fracturing, popularly known as "fracking", is a way of getting to pockets of oil and gas in hard shale rock deep underground. It involves pumping an extremely high-pressure mix of water, chemicals and sand deep underground to fracture the stone.

The resident, who wishes to remain anonymous for fear of the drilling company's reaction, says he was not informed that a deep well was to be drilled right next to his home of 12 years.

And he is not pleased.

"I work for a chemical company, so I would not call me an environmentalist. But still, you should do the right thing." he says."I tell you this is not the right thing. The ill effects I'm having right now is the noise pollution, the physical pollution - that can't be good. And the vibrations can't be good for my well."

He is very concerned that his well water will be contaminated by the fracking fluid.

"What am I going to do if the well goes bad? What do you do with your property? We're already in a tough economy as it is, and this place isn't worth what I paid for it. Now it's double not worth what I paid for it because of what's next door."

The state's Environmental Protection Agency tests wells near landfills, he says, but not near drilling sites, as that is not their jurisdiction.

This place isn't worth what I paid for it. Now it's double not worth what I paid for it because of what's next door.

Ohio resident

"How come they aren't here testing our water? If I want it tested, I have to pay for it. I can't afford to pay 800 dollars," the Mahoning County resident says. "This is more dangerous than living next to a landfill. I'd rather live next to a landfill!"

Oil and gas drilling activities in Ohio are regulated by the Division of Mineral Resources Management of the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, which worries  anti-fracking activist John Williams.

He has arrived on the property to measure the air and water quality around the drilling site. The stream that runs nearby feeds into the area's drinking water reservoir.

"I measure TDS, Total Dissolved Solids," he explains. "I'm just looking for differences. If they were polluting the stream with any frack fluid, we'd see a big difference between these two numbers."

Today, the numbers are the same, "good news" according to Williams.

As a native of this part of Ohio, he is used to oil wells, although his car sports a sticker announcing it runs on biodiesel. He only recently started campaigning against fracking in Ohio.

"I don't like the use of fossil fuels. I hate coal and at the time I thought it's better than coal, so I guess we'll just let it go," he explains. But about 15 months ago he started learning about fracking, "and the more I dug the dirtier its got".

Oil wells are everywhere in this part of the state, yet Williams was particularly shocked by the deep horizontal well being dug in a protected watershed area.

"I'm used to seeing the smaller wells. I came out and saw this monster, and I about died right there," he says, adding that he was even more shocked to learn it was being drilled in the watershed area. "I'm thinking: Who in their right mind would permit this?"

The state has long benefited from oil and gas drilling, first into the Clinton sandstone and, now that the technology has improved, into the Utica and Marcellus shale.

Sarah Elzas

Lynn Anderson, a lifelong resident of Youngstown, the county seat, says oil companies bought the mineral rights under people's land after the steel mills in the region collapsed in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

"The companies said,' Hey, we'll give you a signing bonus, we'll give you a monthly royalty, and you'll get free natural gas heat of your home. So, you know, nobody passed that up'," she says.

But now the oil companies have sold the deep drilling rights to others, including to the French oil giant Total. Anderson says no one was informed.

"How did this happen without any public hearing? How did it happen?" she asks incredulously.

Anderson and Williams are members of a group called Frackfree Mahoning Valley, founded by Susie Beiersdorfer to try to find answers to those kinds of questions.

None of them was active in anti-drilling or environmental movements until about a year and half ago. Beiersdorfer says fracking came to her attention after a series of earthquakes last year were traced back to an injection well on the outskirts of Youngstown.

"17 March was the first earthquake and my husband and I both felt it," she says.

Both are geologists, and at the time, neither one of them knew the quakes were tied to the injection well.

"So you know, it's a matter of waking up. The earthquakes are what woke up a lot of people."

Beiersdorfer is no stranger to the oil industry but she is also convinced of the need to wean ourselves off of fossil fuels.

"I worked as a mud logger in the oil fields out in California," she says. Her father started an oil tools service company. "I've lived around oil all my life and we all live around it. We're soaked in petroleum, we drive cars and all that. But it's sort of like: do we want this planet to be sustainable?"

Audio report: Fracking in Ohio

She is particularly angry that the oil companies are exempt from many of the regulations that apply to other polluting industries.

"These are companies that are exempt from the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, The Safe Water Act," Beiersdorfer argues. "They are above the law, and that is not fair. And when their word means more than the citizens' word, when they're able to come into our neighbourhoods, treat us as guinea pigs, extract the resources, pollute the area and then leave, it's unconscionable."

But not everyone is against the drilling, especially as it means extra income in an economically depressed part of the country.

Carol Ostheimer has two fracked slant wells installed in her backyard in Youngstown. She receives free fuel to heat her house and a cash stipend each month in exchange.

"That is enough to pay for all the utilities and all the real estate taxes, so we're living here for free!" she says. She and her husband are retired, living off of social security, so this makes a big difference.

I'm kind of shocked that everyone's so concerned, because they've been doing this for years.

Hotel owner Michael Naffah

Surrounded by chain-linked fences, the two well heads take up an area about two square metres each. They are in plain sight on the lawn.

"We could put bushes around but my husband is a utilitarian type of person and he feels you don't need bushes to hide something that's useful," she explains.

Ostheimer says the installation was a messy and dirty process but since then she has had no problems with the wells at all.

"They had to dig about an Olympic-sized swimming pool-worth of area here and it looked like hell on earth," she says, pointing to the vast expanse of lawn behind her house. "But they filled it up, and grassed it over, and it actually is smoother and nicer-looking than when they started. And I haven't had any problem with them whatsoever."

The oil wells bring in peripheral economic advantages as well. In nearby Lisbon Michael Naffah owns a hotel, which was not doing well until the uptick in fracking about a year and a half ago.

"The hotel was not a profitable investment until the drilling started," he says.

A rise in guests thanks to the shale-drilling industry meant he could reopen the restaurant, which had closed when he bought it.

The Shale Tavern opened in December of 2011. It got its name because "we were opening it because of the shale".

The menu features ribs and steaks. The children's menu is called 'little drillers' and the bar can mix up a 'fracktini', which Naffah says is "a dirty martini". This is something of a nod to the anti-fracking activists but he believes the deep shale wells are a "100 per cent positive thing" for the region.

Naffah owns another hotel near Youngstown which has two older but still operating wells on the property.

"That's why I'm kind of shocked that everyone's so concerned, because they've been doing this for years," he says.

But John Williams worries abut what could go wrong, and he insists this new kind of drilling is uncharted territory.

"Everybody wants us to believe that it's same old same old, but this is brand new, toxic stuff," he says adamantly. "We've got to catch a grip here and know this is different."

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