Groups allege Ohio violates directive protecting low-income areas impacted by injection wells

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COLUMBUS, Ohio — A coalition of environmental and community groups asked a federal watchdog office on Wednesday to investigate alleged legal violations by the state's injection well approval program.

In a letter to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Office of Environmental Justice, the coalition, coordinated by the Citizens for Health, Environment & Justice, alleges that Ohio's injection well program disproportionately impacts the state's low-income Appalachian areas and has failed to meet a federal directive assuring those communities specific safeguards. The groups also charge that affected areas receive "comically inadequate" opportunities for public participation.

Injection wells pump wastewater from oil and gas drilling deep inside the earth. Some such wells in Ohio have been linked to earthquakes.

According to research by the groups, 75 percent of the 237 active injection wells in Ohio are concentrated in the state's 32 counties officially recognized as part of Appalachia due to their low-income status. Only 17.4 percent of Ohioans live in those counties.

The groups told the office that a 1994 executive order signed by President Bill Clinton required that low-income communities impacted by environmental issues be provided with effective public input and reliable enforcement programs.

"With ODNR, it's everything for the oil and gas industry and nothing for the public. They act just as biased toward the industry as their own secret communications plan revealed them to be," Teresa Mills, of Citizens for Health, Environmental & Justice, said in a news release. "They treat Appalachian Ohio as the fracking industry's dumping ground whose people are too poor to resist taking the lion's share of Ohio's waste and that from surrounding states."

Injection wells disposed of over 1.46 billion gallons of waste from the hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, drilling procedure in 2014 in the deep underground wells, the groups say.

The coalition also repeats allegations some participating groups have made before that the Ohio Department of Natural Resources is a "captive regulator" controlled by drilling interests.

The department spokeswoman had no immediate comment.

Ohio's top oil and gas regulator, Oil and Gas Resources Division chief Rick Simmers, testified before a U.S. House committee in 2013, touting Ohio's strong regulations and positive track record of state-level enforcement of fracking and deep injection of wastewater.

In the wake of similar allegations from environmentalists at the time and calls for a federal takeover of Ohio's program, Simmers said the state imposes more stringent regulations than its sister program at the U.S. EPA.

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