Editorial: Clear need to know

Editorial from The Akron Beacon Journal Local governments in Ohio face an unnecessary struggle getting information they need to prepare effectively for accidents involving oil and gas wells and the shipment of crude oil on rail lines. Full and prompt disclosure is a must. It serves the objective of making sure public safety and the safety of first responders are leading regulatory priorities.

Several recent developments have underscored the need to re-establish a greater degree of local authority. The problem is that the legislature in 2004 placed exclusive control over oil and gas drilling with the state Department of Natural Resources. Shipments of oil by rail are largely regulated by the federal government.

Last week, the Ohio Environmental Council raised alarming questions about how the Department of Natural Resources responded to a fire at a drilling rig in Southeast Ohio. According to a report by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the department was not actively involved until three days after the well pad caught fire. It took five days for Halliburton, the drilling company, to disclose a complete list of all chemicals used in the drilling process.

Local governments are fighting back, too, seeking to reinstate some authority over the rapidly expanding oil and gas industry. But they are meeting resistance from drillers. Of late, the industry sued Broadview Heights over a “bill of rights” the city adopted in 2012. The city attempted to ban hydraulic fracturing, despite the state law denying such actions.

In Hudson, fire officials and residents are concerned about shipments of volatile Bakken crude across the state. The federal government now requires notification, but not if shipments are below 1 million gallons.

Changes to state and federal regulations on what must be disclosed, when and to whom deserve high priority. The best strategy would be to require complete disclosure to local officials in advance, including, in the case of oil and gas well drillers, proprietary information about chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing.

Attorneys from the Ohio Environmental Council point to the promising route, one suggested by a 1986 lawsuit involving a city of Oregon ordinance targeting a hazardous waste dump. As with oil and gas wells, state law barred local zoning and permitting requirements. But an Ohio Supreme Court decision upheld the ordinance, which required the dump to provide detailed records and levied a fee to fund city oversight.

The city of Athens has acted in a similar fashion to deal with oil and gas wells and waste disposal, its oversight aimed at protecting public safety through monitoring, and at recovering costs imposed on the community. The sound point is, local communities are on the front lines when things go wrong, their safety personnel and citizens bearing the brunt. At the least, they deserve to know fully and promptly what harmful substances are within their borders.