Three people standing in front of etched sign on wall

Most Columbus residents assume that our city is safe from the fracking industry. It is not. There are currently 13 injection wells of toxic radioactive frack waste in the Upper Scioto Watershed area, Columbus’ source water protection area.

This waste contains radium 226, which has a half-life of 1600 years, and up to 700 chemicals. Many of the chemicals we know about – some are hidden as “proprietary secrets” – are carcinogens, neurotoxins and hormone disruptors. Each of these injection wells contain millions of gallons of this toxic stew.

Now comes the Columbus Community Bill of Rights (CCBOR) to the rescue. To prevent Columbus residents from being exposed to these dangers and future polluters, an all-volunteer group of concerned citizens has gathered 18,404 signatures over the course of a year for an initiated Columbus city ordinance that would protect our city’s air, water and soil from frack waste. Members submitted all signatures to City Hall at the end of June. Thereafter, the Franklin County Board of Elections validated more than 12,000 signatures, much more than the 8,890 required to put the ordinance before voters for adoption.

Although protecting our air, water, and soil from toxins seems like a no-brainer, this attempt to get the Columbus Community Bill of Rights on the ballot finally succeeded this year in their third campaign. On Monday, July 23, 2018, Columbus City Council members announced that the CCBOR initiated ordinance, entitled “To Establish a Community Bill of Rights for Water, Soil and Air Protection and to Prohibit Gas and Oil Extraction and Related Activities and Projects” had met the legal sufficiency requirement.

With thirty days to either adopt the proposed ordinance or submit it to the voters, City Council members made clear during that meeting that they did vote to put the ordinance on the November ballot and this will be announced on Monday, July 30, the last meeting before Council’s six-week break. After this, the ordinance moves on to the Franklin County Board of Elections for a vote to place it on the ballot.

 

Columbus: The toilet bowl of the fracking industry

 

Most of the fracking wells around Columbus are old repurposed Class II oil and gas wells, some more than 50 years old, that are insidiously located in rural areas and farm fields. Through these wells, the radioactive frack waste is injected into the sandstone or limestone layer under high pressure where it is assumed to be absorbed and not migrate into aquifers. The toxic liquid in these wells can leak, seep or spill and many geologists believe that this waste will migrate over time. Even more wells may be coming into our watershed area as several more permit applications are pending.

Ohio has become the toilet bowl of the fracking industry because, in addition to our own waste, it imports most of the frack waste from Pennsylvania and West Virginia to dump into our injection wells and landfills.

In addition, the solid waste from fracking is also radioactive, but since the state of Ohio does not regulate these so-called “drill cuttings” they are being dumped in landfills throughout the state. There is a site in Columbus that has been permitted by the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for disposal of this waste at a “remediation” landfill adjacent to Alum Creek.

Columbus needs to be proactive in banning from our city any injection wells, the dumping of potentially radioactive drill cuttings, the transportation of frack waste and the processing of the byproducts of this hazardous industry by adopting our ordinance.

In addition to all of this, there are currently bills in the Ohio Legislature (HB 393 and SB 165) to allow cities, villages and towns to spread liquid oil and gas waste as "brine" for de-icing, dust control and for use in portable rest rooms. This innocuously named product, Aqua Salina, has been sold at some Lowe’s stores and other hardware stores in parts of Ohio. Scientists at ODNR recently bought bottles right off the shelf, tested it, and found the average levels of Radium 226 to be 300-500 times the federal drinking water limits. In addition to legalizing the sale of this radioactive waste as a commodity, these bills would give bulletproof protection to the drilling industry against any liability for harm done to people or the environment.

 

What the Ordinance Will Do

 

 

The Community Bill of Rights ordinance asserts our inalienable rights to clean water, clean air, safe soil and our right of local self-governance, especially the right to say NO to the dumping of harmful oil and gas waste in our community. It will also hold corporations that engage in the extraction of hydrocarbons in a neighboring municipality or county liable for all rights violations within the City of Columbus that occur as a result of those activities.

In other words, the corporations that have or are currently injecting frack waste into the Upper Scioto Watershed area outside of Columbus will be liable if it is determined that the waste in those wells has polluted our water, air or soil.

 

Unjust State Law

 

For short-term profits of the oil and gas industry, Columbus citizens are taking a long-term risk for which they weren’t given a choice. In 2004, the Ohio legislature, after heavy industry lobbying, granted the Ohio Department of Natural Resources sole authority over oil and gas activities, long before any of us knew anything about fracking. No vote was taken by the people to give up this control.

Even though Ohio is supposed to be a home-rule state, state law now preempts local communities from protecting themselves from the harms of the oil and gas industry. CCBOR believes this is inherently unjust and must be resisted.

CCBOR applauds the efforts of City Council and City Attorney Zach Klein who are currently challenging the state of Ohio’s aggressive practice of trying to preempt local communities when it comes to gun restrictions. In April, during a news conference, City Attorney Klein was quoted as saying, “Having the state legislature step in and continually erode our ability to make decisions for what’s best for us undermines the principles of representative democracy and the goals we all seek in trying to do the right thing and legislating and protecting our communities …”

CCBOR points out that toxic waste is just as devastating to a community, just ask the residents of Flint, Michigan.

This practice of preempting people from deciding on issues that concern their health, safety and welfare seems to violate the Ohio Constitution. In Article I, Sections 1 and 2 it states: “All men … have certain inalienable rights, among which are those of enjoying and defending life and liberty, … and seeking happiness and safety.”

“All political Power is inherent in the people. Government is instituted for their equal protection and benefit, and they have the right to alter, reform or abolish the same whenever they may deem it necessary.…”

 

Our Choice

 

So, “We the People” have a choice. The people of Columbus could acquiesce and accept things the way they are because it is the law, or they can act on our inalienable rights guaranteed to us under the US and Ohio Constitutions. In our history there have been unjust, illegitimate and immoral laws. It used to be legal to own slaves, that women could not vote and African-American were deprived of their civil rights. These injustices and unjust laws were all challenged at the grass-roots level which drove change upwards. Is it just that the people who will have to suffer the consequences of potential industrial harms not have the right to determine if they want to take that risk in the first place?

CCBOR is part of a larger Community Rights movement. In Ohio, the cities of Athens, Broadview Heights, Yellow Springs, Oberlin and Waterville have all passed similar Community Bills of Rights, as have about 200 communities around the country. Pittsburgh passed one in 2010 that has prevented fracking activity inside the city, even though the state of Pennsylvania also has preempting powers regarding oil and gas activities. CCBOR believes it is time that Columbus do the same.

The Columbus Community Bill of Rights ordinance, when placed on the ballot this November, will give Columbus citizens a voice in determining our right to protect our water, air and soil; our right for a sustainable energy future; our right to prohibit gas and oil extraction and related activities within our city, our right to hold neighboring communities accountable should they violate these rights; and our right to local self-governance. This ordinance will also protect 19+ Columbus Metro suburbs which all buy their water from Columbus.

People have a moral obligation to leave the world safer and better for our children and future generations. The CCBOR group urges citizens to vote for this ordinance in November and educate others about this important issue.

To get involved, volunteer or donate to the CCBOR upcoming campaign, or need more information, you can contact them at www.columbusbillofrights.org or ColumbusBillofRights@gmail.com.

Bill Lyons is a CCBOR co-organizer.

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