Lawsuit aims to end fracking at lake

MARIETTA – The Muskingum Watershed Conservancy District has been named in a second lawsuit by a Seneca Lake couple who feels their idyllic cottage life is being threatened by the organization’s lease agreement with an oil and gas company.

Leatra Harper and her husband, Steven Jansto, who have a pending suit against the conservancy district demanding they release the names of individuals and businesses who rent lakeside properties from the agency, are now seeking an injunction to entirely halt fracking operations on conservancy district land.

“As far as we’re concerned, fracking needs to stop now. This material is toxic and radioactive. We can prove it,” said Harper.

The suit, which was filed last week in Franklin County Common Pleas Court, also names Antero Resources, and the Ohio Department of Natural Resources as defendants.

At issue is a lease agreement that the MWCD Board of Directors approved in February. The agreement allows oil and gas company Appalachian Corp. to use public land around Seneca Lake in Guernsey and Noble counties for oil and gas extraction from the Utica Shale deposits.

A later agreement approved the sale of water from the Seneca Lake reservoir to Antero for use in their fracking operations.

Water, sand, and a variety of other chemicals are used during the fracking process. Harper and her husband co-founded the Southeast Ohio Alliance to Save Our Water.

She and many others opposed to fracking argue that those chemicals are poorly regulated and could easily contaminate the lake water.

Now Harper and family are considering moving from the lake, she said.

“We moved our boat out and we’re talking to Realtors, but we’re waiting to see what happens,” she said. “The lake is a special place for us. We have lots of memories there with our granddaughter.”

The suit alleges the federal deed giving the MWCD governance of over 6,000 acres of land throughout parts of 18 Ohio counties does not give it the authority to lease public land to oil and gas companies.

However, The MWCD has been managing oil and gas leases for its entire 80-year existence, said MWCD spokesman Darrin Lautenschleger.

“When the lands were obtained for the development of reservoirs and dams, there were already oil and gas leases on some of these properties. That has been managed by the conservancy district through the years,” said Lautenschleger.

The organization also has a history of selling water from its reservoirs. The Village of Cadiz purchases water from the nearby Tappan Reservoir as a source for its municipal water supply, he said.

The agreement with Antero is the third oil and gas lease that the conservancy district has added into in recent years, added Lautenschleger.

Currently, land around Clendening Lake in Harrison County is leased to Gulfport Energy Corporation and land around Leesville Lake in Carroll County is leased to Chesapeake Energy Corporation, he said.

Furthermore, the MWCD has enacted several precautionary measures. Among them, they board of directors can halt or end a water withdraw agreement based on water elevation triggers. And as far as land leasing, the MWCD does not allow development on public grounds.

This means there will be no oil and gas well sites on MWCD land. Rather they are reaching the resources beneath MWCD by horizontal drilling from nearby properties, said Lautenschleger.

The current lease agreements have helped the MWCD pay down a large portion of their outstanding debt. So far nearly $78 million in signing bonuses have gone to debt payment and facilities and capital improvements.

The conservancy district has also made just over $1 million in royalties from the operation at Clendening Lake.

Though there is no determining future royalties, the MWCD board of directors has considered using the funds to reduce the assessment fees paid by property owners in the watershed district, including large portions of Washington, Noble, and Morgan counties.

If a reduction is put into place, 2015 would be the earliest residents would see lower property taxes, said Lautenschleger.