EDITOR’S NOTE: The Times Leader presents a look back at the past year today through Friday with Eastern Ohio’s Top 10 stories of 2021, as selected by the newspaper’s editorial staff.
MARTINS FERRY — Environmental activists were vocal throughout 2021, mainly speaking out about their concerns related to the natural gas and oil industry.
Local groups, including the Concerned Ohio River Residents, spoke in public in a few settings. They visited the Belmont County Board of Commissioners, Martins Ferry City Council, and hosted their own forums where panelists spoke.
Jill Hunkler from Barnesville, a CORR member approached commissioners to discuss the Austin Master Services waste management plant in Martins Ferry.
“We’ve been working with a coalition of local, state and national environmental groups to bring attention to this dangerous facility,” Hunkler said. “They are processing fracking waste.”
Hunkler stated that violations have been documented at the plant, including issues related to worker safety. Hunkler also said there are concerns about the plant’s close proximity to a nearby sporting field. The plant is located on First Street in Martins Ferry, along the Ohio River. Hunkler said that the Ohio Department of Natural Resources did not provide sufficient regulations for such facilities. Commissioners were asked to speak with a fire chief who is outside the area about these operations.
Stephanie O’Grady, spokeswoman for the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, said via email that all oil and gas waste facilities must conform with the law and the Ohio Revised Code.
Austin Masters’s owners at first refused to comment. However, CORR members including Bev Reed from Bridgeport and Rev. Michael Ziebarth from Martins Ferry continued to speak at public meetings about the plant. The company issued a statement in October and provided city leaders with a tour of it.
Austin Master Services spokesman Christopher Martin said the Martins Ferry frack waste processing facility has made $2 million in improvements and is apprising the city’s fire department of its emergency response plans. Martin stated that the building used to process waste from Wheeling-Pittsburgh Steel once arrived there wet.
“It is important to know that all waste that arrives at our facility is wet – this means that the material must go through a process similar to the local wastewater treatment facility. After the material has been dried, it is removed any water that remains. Once it is dried our team prepares the material for removal to a landfill or a radioactive waste facility,”He said.
Martin also stated that the business is working with the ODNR on issues.
“We are dedicated to improving our process and have a very strong relationship with ODNR. With that said, our team is currently working to comply with their recommended action items,”He said. “It is important to call out that the ODNR reports showcase a snapshot in time and if someone reads all the reports you can see the actions taken by our team — in fact, you can see that ODNR includes the improvements made from one report to the next.”
One of CORR’s main concerns has been protecting the city’s drinking water from any possible contamination of the aquifer the city water treatment plant draws from. CORR is concerned about Austin Master and the waste it collects, as they could have an impact on the underground well fields. It also has pointed out the facility is located within the city’s Source Water Protection Area.
Martin stated that Austin Master Services is following ODNR regulations regarding the containment of waste. And Martins Ferry Mayor John Davies had the city’s water tested for radium – something he now plans to do regularly. Davies said that the results showed radium levels below the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency drinking water limit.
In addition to the focus on Austin Master, Hunkler and other environmentalists raised objections to the New Jersey-based Omni Energy Group’s saltwater injection well site at the intersection of U.S. 40 and Ohio 331. Despite local objections about the location’s high traffic and proximity to many government sites, residences, and education centers, work has been continuing on the facilities since the drilling permit was issued at end 2020.
Hunkler spoke out about an accidental fluid leakage at the site and stated that construction has potentially endangered and inconvenienced nearby residents.
They suggested that development of the proposed PTT Global Chemical America cracker plant for ethane at Dilles Bottom seems unlikely. They claim that the facility would promote pollution and unnecessary plastics, citing financial analyses that show the economic and plastics markets are not favorable at the moment.
Hunkler spoke for alternatives like regenerative agriculture or hemp production.
J.P. Dutton, Belmont County Commissioner said that the board is open for any new information, but that PTTGCA will make its final decision based on its analysis.
“I think if it does come to pass … it’ll be the most efficient plant … across the United States,”He said.
Dutton stated that commissioners have been in constant contact with ODNR, relating concerns and following-up on incidents such the fluid leakage.
“We’re not just solely focused on oil and gas when it comes to economic development,”He said. “We’re more diversified than that. … A potential project that meets all environmental standards, that is at least going to create 350 permanent jobs which would be a major influx of employment in the county at six-figure salaries.”
PTTGCA stated that it is still looking for an investor partner in the potential project and is committed to building an ethane-cracker in Belmont County.
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