On the Frack Lines of Southeast Ohio by Sasha Michelle White

Athens County, Ohio, just north of United Plant Savers Goldenseal Sanctuary, sits atop the western most edge of the Utica Shale layer. For over the past year the hottest topic of debate in Athens County has been, yes, you guessed it, fracking.

“Fracking”, shorthand for high-volume horizontal hydraulic fracturing, is being touted by the energy industry and their government mouthpieces as the panacea for our country’s energy, economic and security blues. As most of us know, panaceas usually fall short of their promise. And while the fracking boom is certainly putting money into some pockets, this “cure-all” carries a list of side effects about as long as our most notorious pharmaceuticals.

Each well fracked requires the following: 3 to 5 acres of land flattened and compressed and layered with gravel; 4 million gallons of fresh water, either diverted from a local waterway or trucked in; compressor stations with constant noise and off-gassing; pipelines crisscrossing the countryside; clouds of silica dust; seismic thumping; 24-hour drilling with noise and lights and traffic; and a slew of leftover “brine” waste that includes an undisclosed and often untested chemical cocktail of heavy metals, carcinogens, immune and hormone disrupters and radioactive particles to be left either in an open pit at the site, or trucked to a Class II injection well.

Ohio’s state government recently passed a bill “strengthening” regulations on fracking. Most insidiously, the bill eliminates the right of the public to appeal drilling permits once they have been issued and places the burden on medical personnel of tracking down chemical exposure data directly from the responsible company while preventing them from sharing that information with other medical personnel or the public. In effect this bill maintains the oil and gas industry’s privilege for proprietary trade secrets and profits over the right of everyone else to clean air, water and land.

This summer, a local developer drilled a vertical well on his own property to assess the productivity of the Utica Shale in Athens County, and though he has not yet released the results of that well, recently applied for a second drilling permit. The industry, despite mixed geologic reports, has been holding regular landowner leasing parties promising windfall profits to an impoverished region. The Wayne National Forest announced it would re-open its lands (our lands) to oil & gas leasing, despite a lack of provisions addressing fracking in its current management plan and the vehement protest of local citizens, business owners, Athens City Council, Athens County Commissioners and Ohio University. And a local landowner locked herself to two concrete barrels blocking the entrance to a frack-waste injection well and is currently facing a felony charge for doing so. So what, you might ask, does the fracking debate in Athens County have to do with saving native medicinal plants?

If Athens County sees a fracking boom akin to the more northern counties of Ohio, it will change the face of the region. Athens is the cultural, social and economic hub of this area: it hosts one of the country’s oldest farmers’ markets, a vibrant local food community and Ohio University. Many of the people involved with the Goldenseal Sanctuary, whether interns who come to learn or neighbors who have created the surrounding “Green Corridor”, rely on the vitality of Athens County. If it is transformed from farmland and woods to a rural industrial zone filled with frack-holes, that vitality will be lost.

Whether or not Athens County sees a rash of fracking leases and wells drilled, it and Meigs County, home to the Goldenseal Sanctuary, already bear the impacts of this industrial process. Frack-waste, laced with heavy metals, carcinogens and radioactive particles is being trucked into our counties and deposited into Class II Injection Wells. Class II injection wells are a class of disposal well designated specifically for waste from the oil and gas industry. This waste, no matter how toxic, by agreement of government and the industry is categorically labeled “non-hazardous”. This means the wells are less stringently regulated than those that accept “hazardous” waste produced by other industries, even if they are dumping the exact same chemicals. Regulation of these wells is woefully inadequate: it relies heavily on self-reporting by the industry and, as is being discovered in Athens County, violations are seldom enforced. Contents of these wells are being blamed for the contamination of drinking water in several states, and experts are beginning to admit that it is only a matter of time before widespread contamination problems emerge.

In addition to the above, industry acknowledged, side-effects of the fracking “panacea”, are the well-documented “possible” side-effects of fracking: through the increased vectors for invasive plants, fragmentation of habitat, disturbance of peace and quiet, poisoning and/or loss of water supplies, the reproductive capabilities of livestock , wildlife and at-risk plants are greatly diminished, if not eliminated altogether. It is not okay for our wild lands, both public and private, to be industrialized for the profit of a few and to the detriment of many. Despite all our educating on sustainable harvest and wise use of these herbs, the Goldenseal Sanctuary and the United Plant Savers’ Botanical Sanctuary Network will not succeed in protecting native medicinal plants if all the surrounding lands are flattened and paved and poisoned. If our culture continues to believe the lie given us by industry and government and media that economy comes before all else, that we must choose either poverty or poison, our sanctuaries will be diminishing lights, hedged in on all sides. We already choose our medicine differently; we must also choose our beliefs differently. For the good of the plants, for the good of ourselves, for the good of future generations, we must choose differently.

For more information and how you can help:

Appalachia Resist! www.appalachiaresist.wordpress.com
Athens County Fracking Action Network www.acfan.org
Ohio Environmental Council www.theoec.org
Wetzel County Action Group www.wcag-wv.org
Pro Publica www.propublica.org