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Committees unite to fight wastewater in Athens

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Hydraulic fracturing, or as it is commonly called, fracking, is no stranger to Athens County. Following multiple public hearings, legal action and city council debates, the Athens League of Women Voters, Amesville Mayor Gary Goosman and the Bill of Rights Committee (BORC) held a watershed summit at the Ridges on Saturday to further inform voters of the next chapter for fracking and wastewater treatment in the area.

The BORC has been working for the past months to put a new initiative on the ballot for voters to decide whether they want to allow wastewater from fracking allowed within the city limits. Ninety-five percent of Athens County residents receive their water from the Hocking River Aquifer, making the contamination of that water vitally important. To get the initiative on the ballot, the BORC collected signatures from residents before being denied admittance on the ballot by the Athens County Board of Elections.

“We started a petition drive way back in April going door to door,” Second Ward Rep. and member of the BORC Jeffrey Risner said. “We got more than enough signatures to do this … then some people from the city protested and took it to the Board of Elections and their legal counsel argued that our initiative was illegal for various reasons. We believe that the Board of Elections was in error when they said it should not be on the ballot. We believe that the citizens have the right to vote on something.”

If passed, the initiative would have established an ordinance saying fracking and the disposal of fluids that come out of drilling operations would not be disposed of within the city limits. In the event that the water was polluted from an operation outside of the city limits, the city would be given the right to protect its water supply, according to Risner.

Moving forward the BORC is attempting to get the transcript of the Board of Elections’ decision to deny the initiative. Once the transcript is in the hands of BORC, they plan to rewrite it and begin the process of getting enough signatures to get it on the ballot.

“We’re not taking this lying down,” Risner said.

The summit, which began at 8:30 a.m. and ended at 3:30 p.m., brought residents from around the county and specialists such as Goosman, Ron Lucas and Michael Cooper from Wellhead Protection Team and the Athens County Health Department, Nathan Slater who is the Director of Watershed Resources and Rural Action and Sandra Sleight-Brennan from Save Our Rural Environment (SORE).

“Every time I see one of these kinds of battles it is because citizens take it on themselves to do the hard work that is necessary to make it happen. To do the research, to engage regulatory agencies in conversations, it’s all them,” Sleight-Brennan said.

The topics discussed included the Monday Creek Restoration Project, the effects of fracking on local agriculture, protecting water for the future, etc.

One topic of interest included the work Amesville has done to ensure wastewater treatment is both safe and cost effective.

“They have presented a new system for wastewater treatment. It is half the cost of other systems and apparently twice as effective … it was done by the city,” BORC organizer Richard McGinn said. “They have figured out a way to educate the community and get grants from the government and put together a new wastewater treatment plant. That’s something we could do in Athens. Maybe it’s the wave of the future.”

Government participants in the summit included Mayor Paul Wiehl, At-Large Rep. Chris Knisely and Third Ward Rep. Michele Papai.

While the summit-planning members considered the conference a success, they hope it is not the end for wastewater education.

“The watershed is not just Athens,” said McGinn. “It goes to Nelsonville, it goes to Logan, it goes to Lancaster and South all the way to Albany. So the next watershed could, for example, be hosted in Nelsonville,” McGinn said.

For now the struggle to pass legislation for wastewater treatment in Athens continues.

“We are demanding that the Board of elections explain itself,” McGinn said. “We are not going to stop because it’s too important. We might put it on the ballot for May.”

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