MARIETTA - Almost 500 people from multiple Ohio counties have signed a petition urging officials with the Wayne National Forest not to lease forest land for hydraulic fracturing, a controversial method for drawing oil and natural gas from underground shale deposits.
Forest officials said recently the leasing is a possibility. It's the second time such an announcement has been made in eight months, with forest officials having backed off the idea the first time due to increased public interest and new information having been received about deep horizontal drilling.
The idea is drawing criticism from some people, including Friendly resident Steve Pelsor, who was camping at the Leith Run Recreation Area within the 242,000 acre forest Monday.
Waverly residents Sissy and Denny Blair and their dog Ziggy relax at their campsite at the Leith Run Recreation Area within the Wayne National Forest near New Matamoras. Officials with the forest are considering making land available for horizontal drilling. (Photo by Ashley Rittenhouse)
"I don't like the idea," Pelsor said.
"I don't think they should disturb the national forest. Our forefathers gave it to us and you're disturbing a whole bunch of stuff, like the animals."
"When it comes to stuff like that, you don't know what you're going to get into," added his friend, Smithers, W.Va. resident Eddie Lole.
Heather Cantino with the Athens County Fracking Action Network explained that the group learned at the end of September that Wayne National Forest officials had offered more than 3,300 acres of land to the United States Department of the Interior's Bureau of Land Management for the purpose of horizontal drilling.
"Comments closed Oct. 7 so we had one week's time to organize protests of these sales," Cantino said.
She said 36 letters of protest were submitted to the bureau of land management from individuals, organizations and official bodies and on Nov. 15, Wayne National Forest officials withdrew permission for the sale of the land to occur.
"It was a temporary decision and that's why we're having to address this again," Cantino said. "Instead of undertaking an environmental impact statement (EIS) - a formal environmental analysis with public input - they decided to do an internal review process called a RONI, which is review of new information and that process does not allow for public input."
Gary Chancey, public affairs officer with the Wayne National Forest, acknowledged that forest land was withdrawn on Nov. 15 from a federal oil and gas lease sale that was scheduled for Dec. 7.
"The reason we did that was based on new information and really increased public interest as well on natural gas exploration," Chancey said.
"We have a team of natural resource specialists doing further analysis and the group is reviewing the best scientific information available in regard to the surface effects of deep horizontal drilling - RONI, that's what this process is."
Chancey added that there are 60,000 acres of forest land containing federally-owned minerals which are not currently leased, including some in Washington County. He said the RONI will be completed by mid-June, at which point a decision will be made on whether to move forward with the lease sale.
"The RONI is allowing us to review the environmental impact statement that was completed for the current forest plan 2006 - the Land and Resource Management Plan," Chancey said. "Until we complete that process we haven't determined whether there are gaps in the EIS. People are calling for us to do a new EIS but we first need to see if there are any gaps in the one we have."
Cantino said by circulating the petition and turning it in to Wayne National Forest supervisor Anne Carey, signers hope that once the RONI is completed forest officials will call for an EIS rather than immediately offering land for hydraulic fracturing.
"According to the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) which was passed by Congress in the 1970s when a national forest is considering any action that may have significant impacts on the human environment - which means the region in which the forest is located - it must undertake an EIS process," Cantino said. "We're saying if they go ahead and release the parcels rather than authorize an EIS, we think they will be violating NEPA."
Cantino said she and other petition signers are concerned about what the impact on the groundwater and the air could be if forest land is made available for hydraulic fracturing.
"The Wayne has to consider these impacts by law and we're seriously concerned they may be trying to skirt their responsibilities," she said.
Industry experts have said the process of fracking doesn't pose a threat to drinking water.
Chancey said forest officials are looking into the possibility of leasing land for hydraulic fracturing because the forest plan commits the forest to having oil and gas operations, but officials there are still taking a close look at what the impacts could be.
"We've traveled to Carroll County to look at horizontal drilling activity and we learned about how those systems operate," he said.
Chancey noted the financial benefits that go along with oil and gas well drilling, saying the industry employs many people and some revenue gained from well drilling goes back to county governments.
Waverly resident Denny Blair said he sees the financial gain as a good reason for allowing hydraulic fracturing in the forest.
"The only thing that will do is give them more money to improve the campground," Blair said.
Betsy Cook, of Lowell, a member of the Southeast Ohio Fracking Interest Group, is among those concerned about the possibility of hydraulic fracturing occurring in the forest.
"That land was set aside for the people and it's like they're stealing from us or taking away something that belongs to the people and if they want to do that they should put it on the ballot," she said.
Those who want to sign the petition should email Heather Cantino at heather.cantino@gmail. It will be delivered to Anne Carey on May 23.