Ohio oil and gas industry accident data boost worries about drilling under state parks

Ohio oil and gas industry accident data boost worries about drilling under state parks

Public records show Ohio regulators log hundreds of incidents each year dealing with chemical releases related to the oil and gas industry.

Such events raise critics’ concerns about plans to drill for oil and gas under state-owned parks and wildlife areas. While most problems happen at rigs and wellheads, which will be outside the parks, critics say airborne releases of methane or other chemicals would not be limited to property boundaries. And they fear that runoff could reach groundwater or surface water sources for state parks and nearby areas.

Jenny Morgan, a volunteer with the group Save Ohio Parks, said she asked the Ohio Department of Natural Resources for public records after Rob Brundrett, president of the Ohio Oil and Gas Association, said in a radio appearance last month that environmental problems and safety-related events “are certainly isolated events” when considered in light of the amount of industrial activity over the past 13 years.

Brundrett told the Energy News Network the state has nearly 63,000 oil and gas wells and thousands of miles of gas pipelines. And he focused on incidents that rose to the level of “major” or “severe” problems.

Morgan said the ODNR documents provide a very different perspective.

She also noted an event earlier this week, where a gas leak at a Guernsey County well pad triggered a mandatory evacuation within a half-mile radius. The sheriff lifted the order Monday night, but cautioned residents to seek medical attention if they had headaches, dizziness or trouble breathing.

The ODNR spreadsheets sent to Morgan last week show approximately 1,530 incidents from the start of 2018 through Sept. 10 of this year.

Agency personnel classified three events as “major” or “severe,” meaning they presented relatively high degrees of public safety or environmental impacts. They took up to a day or longer to control and required involvement by multiple agencies.

A “major” event on July 11 required the evacuation of more than 450 people in Columbiana County due to a well pad gas leak, for example.

Another two dozen incidents rose to the level of “moderate” events. ODNR’s spreadsheets say those events involved “considerable” public safety or environmental impacts. Problems took up to 12 hours to control, often with involvement from multiple agencies. Chemical releases exceeded various regulatory reporting thresholds.

Roughly 790 events during the nearly six-year period fit into ODNR’s “minor” category. The spreadsheets indicate those situations were stabilized in less than four hours with minimal public safety or environmental impact.

On Sept. 4, for example, a landowner accidentally struck a line with a brush hog, causing a gas leak. On Aug. 29, crude oil from a small flowline leak in Carroll County reached a dry ditch. On April 24, a Guernsey County site had a combustor fire while a truck was loading up at a well pad. A Jan. 7 “loss of well control” led to small amounts of brine on the soil and drainage area for a Noble County site.

Many of the remaining 600 or so events on the spreadsheets reflected referrals from other agencies, cases where ODNR gave technical assistance and matters outside the scope of ODNR’s oil and gas management work.

Events within ODNR’s jurisdiction dealt with oil and gas or brine and other fluids from both conventional and fracked horizontal wells.

“The ODNR Division of Oil and Gas Resources management will continue to carry out regulations set by statute and work to respond to incidents that need to be addressed,” said spokesperson Andy Chow, responding to the Energy News Network’s request for comment about public concerns over releases of oil, gas, brine or other materials into the environment.

“We’re just astounded at the fact that you could have this number of accidents and say that the oil and gas industry is safe,” said Melinda Zemper, another Save Ohio Parks member. The group is planning a rally at the Ohio Statehouse on Friday, Oct. 27, at noon.

Understating problems?

ODNR’s categories seem to understate the problem, said Silverio Caggiano, a hazardous materials expert whose three decades of experience includes work with the Youngstown Fire Department and Mahoning County hazardous materials team.

For example, ODNR categorized as moderate a June 2019 Harrison County event where explosions and fire damaged nine tanks in the wake of thunderstorms at a fracked well site. The report surmises that most well condensate and brine burned. But approximately 11,000 gallons of brine were released onto a well pad. Booms and pads were needed to stop flow where the well pad’s containment was damaged.

“Moderate” events earlier this year include an April 4 wellhead fire and a June 1 explosion.

A “minor” event on Feb. 1, 2019, released approximately four barrels of brine at an injection well site in Licking County due to frozen pipes. The spill was apparently contained on the well pad, but trucks for cleanup couldn’t reach the site right away due to a snow emergency.

Multiple incidents in the ODNR spreadsheets involve injection wells and transport of brine or other waste fluids. Brine is super salty water that comes up from wells. It often has elevated levels of heavy metals, as well as naturally occurring radioactive material. Brine waste is generally disposed of in underground injection wells.

The oil and gas industry also adds chemicals to fluids pumped into horizontal wells shortly after drilling to fracture, or frack, shale rock so oil and gas can flow out. Much of the fluids comes back up before oil and gas production begins and most of the waste must also be disposed of in deep injection wells.

“The sad thing is that a lot of these chemicals are unknown because they don’t have safety data sheets with them,” Caggiano said.

Even if one excludes complaints about odor, smell or plain informational reports, “you’re still looking at 50 to 60 calls a year” statewide, Caggiano added.

In Caggiano’s view, an average of one call a week, even for “minor” incidents, belies the industry’s claims that there are few problems. Even quickly cleaned-up releases involve chemicals that can be toxic, he said. And “obviously [prevention plans] didn’t work, because you had an incident,” he said.

“The fact that there have been only three major incidents since 2018 is a testament to the industry’s rigorous safety standards and practices,” said Brundrett at the Ohio Oil and Gas Association. “Considering that only .004% of Ohio oil and gas operations have had a major reportable incident during that timeframe, I would put our industry’s safety numbers against any other manual industry in Ohio.”

The information from the spreadsheets also “highlights the important steps of transparency and government cooperation that the oil and gas industry has adopted to minimize risk to the environment, our employees and the people of Ohio,” Brundrett added.

However, critics don’t discount “moderate” or even “minor” events.

“The cost is the collateral damage to the people and the environment in these areas,” said Roxanne Groff, another member of Save Ohio Parks.

The logged incidents also raise worries for her and others about proposals to drill under Ohio state-owned lands, including Salt Fork and Wolf Run state parks and Valley Run and Zepernick wildlife areas.

“What if it happens around Salt Fork? What if it goes into one of the major feeds into Wolf Run or Salt Fork Lake?” Groff said.The Ohio Oil and Gas Land Management Commission plans to rule on the proposals to drill under ODNR land before the end of the year.

Ohio oil and gas industry accident data boost worries about drilling under state parks is an article from Energy News Network, a nonprofit news service covering the clean energy transition. If you would like to support us please make a donation.

Local injection wells suspended over ‘imminent danger’ to drinking water

K&H injection well operation in Torch, Ohio (Ted Auchs / FracTracker Alliance)

TORCH, Ohio — Four fracking waste injection wells in Athens County have temporarily suspended operations by order of the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, which says the wells present an “imminent danger” to health and the environment.

On May 1, ODNR Division of Oil and Gas Resources Management ordered the suspension of a Class II injection well in Rome Township on grounds that its operator, Reliable Enterprises LLC, violated an Ohio Administrative Code section that bars operators from contaminating or polluting surface land and surface or subsurface water. In late June, three wells in Torch operated by K&H Partners were suspended on the same grounds.

Applications for new Class II injection wells from both Reliable Enterprises and K&H were denied because of the suspensions. K&H’s application for a fourth well at its $43 million facility in Torch generated controversy when it was proposed in 2018.

Class II wells are used to contain toxic waste from oil and gas production thousands of feet underground. The wells are intended to isolate the waste water, known as brine, from groundwater.

However, the Division of Oil and Gas Resources Management found that waste fluid injected into the three K&H wells had spread at least 1.5 miles underground and was rising to the surface through oil and gas production wells in Athens and Washington counties.

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Contributed to DocumentCloud by Dani Kington (Athens County Independent) • View document or read text

Waste injected into the Rome Township well spread to oil and gas production wells as far as two miles away, also in both Athens and Washington counties, the division said.

That suggests that all four wells “endanger and are likely to endanger public health, safety, or the environment,” the ODNR orders said. If the wells continue to operate, the ODNR orders say “additional impacts may occur in the future and are likely to contaminate the land, surface waters, or subsurface waters.”

The suspension orders for both K&H and Reliable Enterprises say the wells cannot resume operation until “the conditions that caused the suspension have been corrected.”

K&H fought its order in the Franklin County Court of Common Pleas, but the court found that it did not have jurisdiction in the case — the Ohio Oil and Gas Commission did. The commission was already considering the company’s appeal, which remains pending.

Reliable Enterprises did not appeal its suspension order, according to the commission’s docket, which the Independent obtained through a records request.

Two Class II wells in Noble County were also suspended earlier this year over threats to local water supplies. The order suspending those wells reported issues with brine flowing to the surface since 2010 and referenced multiple instances of uncontrolled brine release that required corrective action from the Division of Oil and Gas Resources Management.

A 2021 incident cost the division $1.2 million to repair. In January of this year, another uncontrolled brine release occurred at one of the wells. The suspension order for the Noble County wells came days later.

Threats to water

Although the composition of fracking fluid is generally considered a “trade secret,” monitoring suggests the waste is highly hazardous.

Data released by the Pennsylvania-based watchdog group FracTracker shows that at least two of the three K&H wells in question have been injected with waste containing polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS. PFAs are linked to birth defects and increased risk of cancer.

ODNR data published by FracTracker shows fracking waste in Ohio contains radioactive waste as well. The radioactive compounds that ODNR found in fracking waste can remain in the environment for thousands of years and cause bone, liver and breast cancer.

Mark Bruce, then an administrative officer with the Division of Oil and Gas Resources Management, told the Independent in August that “ODNR has received no evidence or reports that any groundwater, surface water, or water wells have been impacted” by fracking waste that migrated from the K&H wells in Torch. Bruce has since left his position.

The absence of evidence showing impacts on drinking water doesn’t necessarily mean that no impact has occurred, said Ted Auch, midwest program director for FracTracker. Auch is particularly concerned for Athens County residents who rely on well water, who may have limited ability to monitor possible contamination.

Likewise, Julie Weatherington-Rice, a hydrogeologist and Columbus-based senior scientist at Bennett and Williams Environmental Consultants, said the brine migration incident “certainly” threatens water supplies.

“Yes, we can lose public water supplies; yes, we can lose private water supplies,” Weatherington-Rice said. She added that it is difficult to know how far the impact could extend in any specific incident of brine migration.

Bruce said residents can report suspected impacts to the ODNR by calling (614) 265-6922, adding that the department will investigate reports.

In addition to disposal through injection, fracking waste in Ohio is also used to salt roadways despite its radioactivity. Advocates, including the Ohio Brine Task Force, say this poses a grave environmental threat.

A risky place for underground injection

“All injection wells have the potential to leak,” said Weatherington-Rice. “What was down there already has to move … so it’s gonna go in all the fissures and the joints and the cracks … and you’re overloading the system. Eventually the glass is gonna overflow.”

This is particularly problematic since geologists do not know the locations of many fault lines or of many abandoned wells and mines through which injected brine can reach surface and groundwater sources, she explained. Many faults are discovered only through seismic events induced by fracking and wastewater injection. One such event occurred recently in Washington County.

Production well operators near Torch have alleged their operations were affected by migrating fracking waste for years, according to the ODNR order.

In a 2016 investigation, the ODNR determined that it was unlikely the K&H wells were affecting the production wells. But in its June order, the department stated that more recent developments “undermine that 2016 investigation and demonstrate that its conclusion is wrong.”

In finding that fracking waste was migrating from the K&H wells, ODNR noted that K&H was injecting “large volumes of fluid” into the wells “at pressures that have increased.”

In 2019, the Division of Oil and Gas Resources Management found evidence that brine water was migrating from injection wells in Washington County, affecting 28 nearby production wells.

ODNR believes fluid is migrating from the K&H wells in the same manner as in Washington County. Before its Washington County investigation, “the Division did not contemplate that injected fluid could migrate in the manner described in that report,” according to the June suspension order.

That claim doesn’t float with Weatherington-Rice.

“I just find that statement borderline ludicrous,” she said. “Anybody who has an undergraduate degree in geology, who went to a good school and did field work … would know better than that.”

Weatherington-Rice added, “Ohio does not have magic geology” that would accept injection of large amounts of waste fluid without posing any risk.

The Ohio shale formation into which the K&H wells and the Reliable Enterprises well inject is a particularly risky geology for underground injection, according to Weatherington-Rice.

In its order denying Reliable Enterprises’s application for a second well, the ODNR Division of Oil and Gas Resources Management pointed to issues with migrating fluid at its well in Rome Township. The order said, “an Ohio shale injection zone poses a substantial risk” for migration.

Likewise, in its order denying K&H’s application for a fourth well, the division cited “demonstrated problems with injecting into similar injection zones,” referring to waste injection into the Ohio shale near suspended wells.

The Buckeye Environmental Network and Ohio Brine Task Force, two Ohio environmental advocacy groups, have called for a suspension of all Class II wells injecting into the Ohio shale for over a decade, according to a Sept. 5 press release.

The release quoted Weatherington-Rice’s description of the Ohio shale as “holier than a Swiss cheese.”

K&H fights back

K&H Partners won a temporary restraining order from the Franklin County Court of Common Pleas in early June, after Judge Mark Serrott found that ODNR had deprived the company of its property rights. The company also appealed the decision to the Ohio Oil and Gas Commission; that case is pending.

In seeking the temporary restraining order, K&H argued that the company, owned by the huge investment fund Blackstone, would face “catastrophic and irreparable harm from an indefinite suspension of its injection well facility,” citing a threat to K&H’s $1.2 million annual payroll.

K&H paid a $500,000 bond for a 15-day extension of the initial restraining order that allowed it to continue operation.

The primary basis of K&H’s case — both in Franklin County and before the Ohio Oil and Gas Commission — is a June 2020 report from an independent consulting firm. K&H hired the firm the month before to investigate complaints that its injected wastewater was migrating to production wells owned by Energex Power.

According to an appeal document, the firm reported no evidence “suggesting the K&H Partners [wells] are responsible for impacts to the surrounding oil and gas production wells.” The report said the brine appearing in production wells could be naturally occurring.

In its motion to dismiss the temporary restraining order, ODNR said the consultants’ report “does not undermine” findings of the agency’s multiyear investigation of the K&H wells, which found that the brine found in nearby production wells “cannot be plausibly explained as naturally originating.”

Although the ODNR has not yet seen evidence of water supplies contaminated by the K&H wells, the ODNR said in its motion to dismiss that the wells should be suspended to prevent such contamination from occurring: “Once an underground aquifer has been contaminated by brine, there is no way to make it safe again,” the motion states. “The damage is done, and it cannot be undone.

“Accordingly, when an injection well is showing signs of migration, the Chief cannot and does not wait for evidence that the migration has actually impacted an aquifer before issuing an order suspending operation. If he did so, it would be too late.”

The Franklin County case was dismissed and the restraining order vacated on Aug. 2 after Serrott determined that his court lacked jurisdiction to oversee the case. That right falls to the Ohio Oil and Gas Commission, which is already considering K&H’s appeal.

The commission will hold a private, quasi-judicial appeal to discuss the merits of the K&H appeal on Sept. 11, said Cory Haydocy, the Ohio Oil and Gas Commission’s executive director. It is unclear how long it will take to resolve the appeal, Haydocy added.

K&H attorney Jonathan Olivito did not return a request for comment.

“We said it would happen”

K&H operates facilities across 3,600 acres in Athens and Washington counties, according to the company’s court filings. The company received permits for its three Torch wells in 2012, 2014 and 2015 amid fierce public opposition.

For local activists who participated in the initial fight against the wells, the recent ODNR suspension and denial orders only confirm what activists have said about injection wells all along.

“We said it would happen, and it did!” activist and former Athens County Commissioner Roxanne Groff said in the press release from the Buckeye Environmental Network and Ohio Brine Task Force. “From the first Class II Injection Well permit application in Athens County in 2011, scores of us protested the idea and stated clearly that drilling in this area would eventually cause the migration of fluids. ODNR’s self-proclaimed strict policies failed.”

Bruce, with the ODNR Division of Oil and Gas Resources Management, told the Independent that despite recent migration of fracking waste, underground injection is “an effective and safe way to dispose of oilfield waste fluids.” Ohio’s regulatory framework ensures the wells “do not negatively impact public health, safety, or the environment and reduce risk as much as possible,” Bruce said.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that over 2 billion gallons of fracking fluid are disposed of in about 180,000 Class II injection wells every day.

The post Local injection wells suspended over ‘imminent danger’ to drinking water appeared first on Athens County Independent.

Calls for anti-LGBTQ+ protests backfire

A crowded room full of demonstrators. A person in the front gestures, talking with their hands. A sign in the back reads, "MY BOOKS / MY CHOICE". Below each "MY" is the transgender flag. The bubble letters are in blue and pink, like the flag.
An individual speaks before the library board. Photo by Dani Kington.

NELSONVILLE, Ohio — Calls to protest library LGBTQ+ Pride displays and holdings instead prompted a 100-strong crowd supportive of the displays and library materials to show up to the July board meetings of the Athens County Public Libraries and Nelsonville-York City School District.

Around 80 people crammed into the Nelsonville Public Library, at 95 W. Washington St., on July 19, with a crowd of about 30 others assembled outside. Fourteen people spoke during the meeting’s public comment period — all in support of LGBTQ+ rights and current library practices. Many others held signs or Pride flags to signal their support for the same.

“LGBTQ+ individuals are our neighbors, our friends, our coworkers and service providers,” said local resident Susan Westenbarger at the meeting. “They deserve to occupy space in the libraries just like anyone else, and they deserve to have their presence acknowledged.”

Letters published in the Athens News between June 15 and July 18 called for protests at the libraries.

Some letters claimed pride displays pushed “the trans lifestyle on our kids and communities,” caused “traditional families” to feel uncomfortable and/or advanced the “radical agenda of the left.” One described a young adult graphic novel about the author’s journey with queer gender and sexuality as “gross and vulgar,” while another joined its call to ban such holdings. Yet another described library sessions of the popular role-playing game Dungeons and Dragons as “anti-religious meetings.” 

These letters prompted twice as many defending the libraries, library holdings and pride displays.

Nelsonville reflects the nation

Library Director Nick Tepe told the Independent that as the letters trickled in, he thought, “Well, it’s finally come to us.” 

Libraries across the country have faced similar complaints for years, with an uptick beginning in 2016. In many places, these complaints have resulted in less LGBTQ+ programming, partly due to self-censorship (for instance, librarians wanting to avoid controversy).

The library board has regularly discussed over the past two years how to respond in the event of similar controversy here, Tepe said. 

At the meeting, Tepe broadly defended LGBTQ+ library holdings and Pride displays as appropriate within library policy, citing broad community interest in LGBTQ+ books and materials and Pride Month celebrations.

“Displaying library materials on topics of great interest meets the collection development policy standards of providing library patrons with access to authoritative opinion on the topic of varying levels of difficulty, complexity and length,” Tepe said at the meeting.

Tepe also noted that the library system has received no formal complaints from any of the individuals who wrote letters to the Athens News. He told the Independent that he recently received two related complaints about library holdings. While one complaint is still being processed, neither has yet resulted in the removal of library materials, Tepe said.

ACPL Board Vice President Suzanne Ragg and member Steve Cox both expressed support for Tepe and current library policy as it relates to LGBTQ+ holdings and displays.

“I’m very proud of the development that our library has done in their policies concerning inclusiveness in our community — our whole community — and I appreciate everything our administration has done to stand up,” Cox said.

To convey the breadth of community interest in LGBTQ+ holdings and displays, Tepe referenced bipartisan federal recognition of Pride Month by U.S. Presidents Donald Trump and Joe Biden, as well as media coverage and widespread attendance of Pride Month events locally.

However, Tepe told the Independent that none of this is necessary for the libraries to recognize feature LGBTQ+ pride displays, whether in June or at any other time of year: “The fact that there is a community in Athens who is interested in that topic means that it will continue to be at the library.”

Many who spoke during the public comment period at the library board meeting emphasized the importance of varied library holdings to individual exploration and discovery, particularly as it relates to identity.

“It wasn’t until a public library opened in the town over from mine in eighth grade that I was able to start navigating big questions around how my identity and beliefs might differ from others,” said local resident Becca Lachman. “There are items in our libraries I don’t agree with either or want my child to read or view, but I welcome those conversations with her when she does, and I can’t imagine parenting without access to all that a public library offers.” 

Others said that pride displays and LGBTQ+ holdings have helped them feel welcome at the county’s public libraries.

“For those of us who are a part of the LGBT community, it’s important for us to feel included and to know that libraries are for everyone, especially those of us who have been excluded or pushed out of public spaces,” said Miranda Christy.

Tepe told the Independent that these comments reinforced the importance of the library’s displays and holdings.

“The comments that were made by members of the community last night talking about how they felt welcome in the library and safe in the library because of that visible recognition is meaningful to us, because we do want everybody to feel safe and welcomed in the library — so so that is definitely something that we are taking into account as we make decisions about displays,” Tepe said.

On to Buchtel

After the ACPL board meeting concluded, about 50 attendees traveled to the Nelsonville-York Board of Education meeting. The board chooses the board members for ACPL, which prompted letters to the Athens News calling for anti-LGBTQ+ protests at the July 19 school board meeting.

A woman at the forefront speaks at a podium while a large crowd sits in several rows of chairs behind her.
Photo by Dani Kington.

One attendee addressed the turnout during the public comment period, noting that those in attendance wished to support the library’s current administration. No other members of the public made comments.

School board president Micah Covert did not respond to the Independent’s request for comment.

Tepe said it will be important for the public to continue supporting the library’s board and administration. 

“We’re not expecting this to be done after this board meeting,” Tepe said. “The pattern in other places is that the complaints continue — and there’s always the possibility that people who are objecting to the presence of particular viewpoints in the library will continue to complain and come to board meetings and continue to challenge library materials. So, we will continue to need the support of everybody in our community as we make sure that we are providing information for the entire community.”

The next ACPL board meeting will be at 4:30 p.m. Wednesday, Aug. 16, again at the Nelsonville branch. The next Nelsonville-York Board of Education meeting will be at 6 p.m. Wednesday, Aug. 9, in the junior high school/high school cafeteria.

The post Calls for anti-LGBTQ+ protests backfire appeared first on Athens County Independent.

The Plains loses its pharmacy

An empty parking lot and storefront on a sunny day.
The former Rite Aid in The Plains now sits empty. Photo by Dani Kington.

THE PLAINS, Ohio — After operating for decades, the Rite Aid location in The Plains closed this summer. The closure has left residents without a local pharmacy and increased the distance between many neighboring communities and the nearest pharmacy option.

“This decision has been sprung on everyone (in) the Plains who used that pharmacy, completely without regard to how this would affect people who can’t easily travel to the next closest pharmacies in Athens or Nelsonville,” said The Plains resident Sam Jones in a Facebook message. 

Jones has primarily used the Rite Aid pharmacy in The Plains since 1998.

Rite Aid press office representatives said, “A decision to close a store is one we take very seriously and is based on a variety of factors—not just one—including business strategy, lease and rent considerations, local business conditions and viability, and store performance. 

“We review every neighborhood to ensure our customers will have access to health services, be it at Rite Aid or a nearby pharmacy, and we work to seamlessly transfer their prescriptions so there is no disruption of services. We also strive to transfer associates to other Rite Aid locations where possible.”

Press office representatives declined to provide more detailed information about The Plains closure.

Since 1998, the site of the former Rite Aid at 93 N. Plains Road has been owned by a Buffalo, New York-based company with the same address as national property management corporation Benderson Development. Company representatives did not respond to requests for comment.

The nearest pharmacies to the former Rite Aid include the Shrivers Pharmacy location on West Union Street 4.1 miles away and the CVS locations on East State Street and Court Street in Athens, each about five miles away. Existing Rite Aid prescriptions were automatically transferred to CVS, according to the store’s voicemail. 

In addition to The Plains, the closure will also impact neighboring communities such as Chauncey and Millfield, which also lack a local pharmacy option. 

“Late at night if a kid spiked a fever or needed allergy medicine I could run [to the Rite Aid] instead of Athens,” said The Plains resident Josie Dupler. “I used Rite Aid to get my flu shot every year, it was just convenient.”

For residents without reliable transportation, the increased distance to a pharmacy creates an added barrier to accessing healthcare.

Shrivers offers free prescription delivery. However, delivery is not an option for emergencies and some prescriptions. 

In such cases, as The Plains resident Kit Seida said, those options “may as well be on the moon when you don’t drive.”

“No one wants to spend an hour on the bus when they’re sick just to go pick up something like cold and flu meds or an anti-diarrheal,” Seida said.

In addition to concerns regarding convenience and emergency pharmacy access, many residents expressed concern about losing the comfort of a local establishment.

The Plains resident Sue Estes has used the pharmacy for 25 years and will miss the comfort of a local store with familiar faces. 

“The pharmacists always made me feel very comfortable when getting immunizations there and they always answered … questions I had regarding immunizations and medications with exceptional knowledge and patience,” Estes said. “It’s so sad that Rite Aid is no longer here.”

For Tammy Conner Hogsett, whose husband worked at Rite Aid in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, the store “was not just another store, it was an opportunity creator for myself and my family.” 

For others, the store’s disappearance is a troubling sign about the trajectory of their community.

“To lose Rite Aid feels disheartening,” Seida said. “Because all too often, all I hear is how The Plains has gone downhill, or how it isn’t what it used to be, or that it’s slowly ‘getting worse’. And the loss of an essential business, like the pharmacy, feels like proof-positive of those assertions.”

However, Seida added, “I — and plenty of others — are racking our brains to keep those assertions from being truth.”

The post The Plains loses its pharmacy appeared first on Athens County Independent.

Railway Safety Bills Need to Ensure Rural Areas Get Help, Experts Say

Rail-safety bills that Congress is considering in response to this year’s catastrophic train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, need a guarantee that rural communities will get the help they need to deal with their increased risk for derailments, a policy expert says.

“If you look at the history of these catastrophic derailments, they’re overwhelmingly happening in rural places and in small towns across the country,” said Anne Junod, senior research associate at the nonpartisan think tank the Urban Institute, in an interview with the Daily Yonder. Her research informed the railway safety legislation being considered in the Senate.

Last week the National Transportation Safety Board held a hearing near the site of February’s East Palestine, Ohio, derailment, which resulted toxic-chemical fires that lasted two days and forced evacuations. Also last week, liquid asphalt leaked into the Yellowstone River in Montana after a train derailment and railroad bridge collapse over the river.

Rural train derailments incur the highest average damage costs, at just over $362,000 per derailment, according to a Daily Yonder analysis. This is compared to an average of $115,000 in major metropolitan areas and about $200,000 in medium-sized metropolitan areas.

Despite the likelihood and severity of rural train derailments, rural communities are less equipped than cities to adequately respond, according to Junod. This is because rail companies are not required to provide information about the contents of a derailed train to the community affected, leaving that outreach up to local officials. 

“Right now, it's on the community to get a hold of the railroad, and say, ‘what was the material that is now on fire in our community?’” Junod said. “The different types of hazardous materials will dictate the way that you respond and try to control the fire or prevent an explosion.” 

For rural areas where emergency response programs are often volunteer-led and more limited in capacity, conducting this outreach can be difficult when they’re already “punching well above their weight” to adequately respond to a disaster, Junod said. 

This was the case in rural East Palestine, Ohio, where a train carrying chemicals used to make plastic derailed and spilled into the local waterways. Residents within a mile of the crash were under a temporary evacuation order in case of an explosion. 

Reporting from CNN found that most of the firefighters who responded to the disaster were volunteers and did not have the necessary equipment to safely deal with a hazardous chemical spill. 

Nor did they know exactly what they were responding to: While the public was alerted of a vinyl chloride spill immediately after the derailment, Norfolk Southern, the train’s operator, did not disclose what the other hazardous chemicals spilled were until a week later when the company submitted a remedial action work plan to the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency. 

And not all affected agencies and jurisdictions were made aware of the derailment. In a letter to the president of Norfolk Southern, Pennsylvania Governor Josh Shapiro wrote that the company failed to implement Unified Command, a multi-agency or multi-jurisdictional process that involves coordinated response from agencies and organizations that service the areas affected by a disaster. 

Norfolk Southern decided to burn five of the derailed train cars containing vinyl chloride to avoid an uncontrolled explosion but did not consult Pennsylvania officials before making this decision (East Palestine is just one mile from the Pennsylvania border). 

“Failure to adhere to well-accepted standards of practice related to incident management and prioritizing an accelerated and arbitrary timeline to reopen the rail line injected unnecessary risk and created confusion in the [remediation] process,” Governor Shapiro wrote.

Rail Safety Legislation Is Underway

On June 21, 2023, the Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration announced a proposed rule that would require railroads to maintain information about hazardous material shipments. The database would be accessible to authorized emergency response personnel.

All emergency responders authorized, licensed, or otherwise permitted by a state to conduct emergency response activities in their community would have access to the hazardous materials information in the event of a rail accident, according to an agency spokesperson. This means a rural volunteer fire department, for example, would have access as long as they are permitted by the town, county, or state to conduct emergency response operations.

The proposed rule adds to other railway safety legislation already under consideration in Congress in the wake of the East Palestine derailment. 

The RAIL Act, introduced in the House by Ohio Representative Bill Johnson on March 17, would require hotbox detectors be placed every 10 miles on railways used to transport hazardous materials. These detectors monitor how hot a train’s wheels are, which when overheated, can cause breakage and result in a derailed train, as was the case in East Palestine. The legislation would also provide grant funding for hazardous material training for first responders. 

The Railway Safety Act of 2023, introduced in the Senate by Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown on March 1, would also require wayside defect detectors – a monitoring system on railroad tracks that includes hotbox detectors – be used for every train carrying hazardous materials. Railway companies would be required to provide state emergency response commissioners with advance notice about what hazardous materials are moving through their communities. 

While the bills are a good starting point, said Junod from the Urban Institute, they don’t go far enough to meet rural communities where they are. The federal funding from these bills would likely be disseminated through grants, which can be a barrier for rural communities who don’t have paid staff to apply for these grants. 

“If [these bills] don't have a kind of rural guarantee, they're gonna face further challenges in accessing these really needed resources,” Junod said. 

The post Railway Safety Bills Need to Ensure Rural Areas Get Help, Experts Say appeared first on The Daily Yonder.

Former Athens housing authority director sentenced for multi-million dollar theft

Athens County Assistant Prosecutor Meg Saunders presents to visiting judge Daniel Hogan, while Jodi Rickard sits with her attorney, K. Robert Toy. Photo by Dani Kington.
Athens County Assistant Prosecutor Meg Saunders presents to visiting judge Daniel Hogan, while Jodi Rickard sits with her attorney, K. Robert Toy. Photo by Dani Kington.

ATHENS, Ohio — Former Athens Metropolitan Housing Authority Director Jodi Rickard pleaded guilty to seven felony charges on Tuesday as part of a deal with the Athens County Prosecutor’s Office.

Rickard was indicted in February on charges related to her multi-million dollar theft from AMHA. Visiting Judge Daniel Hogan sentenced Rickard to eight to 12 years in prison and ordered her to pay more than $2.3 million in restitution. She will be eligible for judicial release after five years and will spend five years on parole once she is released.

AMHA’s attorney David Mott said at the hearing, “​​This was not just a simple theft of taxpayer funds — these were funds intended to provide housing to low income residents of the county. So, this was essentially a theft of decent housing from our most vulnerable neighbors.” 

Matthew R. Eiselstein, director of communications for the Ohio Auditor of State’s office, said, “We’re proud of the efforts of our [Special Investigations Unit] team and appreciate the efforts of Prosecutor [Keller] Blackburn’s office in bringing this crime to a conclusion.”

Rickard initially pleaded not guilty to all charges, but changed her plea as part of a deal with the Athens County Prosecutor’s Office. Hogan sentenced Rickard according to the terms described in the agreement. 

At the hearing, Rickard’s attorney, K. Robert Toy, agreed with Athens County Assistant Prosecutor Meg Saunders that evidence obtained in the case demonstrates Rickard’s guilt. 

“She is remorseful, and that is something that is sincere,” Toy said. “I’ve dealt with a lot of people — usually with much smaller amounts it happens: They take a little bit, they intend to pay it back, and then they take a little more, and they intend to pay that back, and they don’t. And then it snowballed into the tremendous amount that we’re dealing with here today.” 

Athens County Prosecutor Keller Blackburn agreed. “What she did was reprehensible and wrong, but her actions after she got caught were among the best that we’ve experienced,” he said, adding that this is reflected in the plea agreement. 

In addition to prison time, the plea agreement specified that Rickard will pay $2,325,395.12 in restitution to AMHA. Saunders said that amount is based upon the Ohio Auditor of State’s investigation into Rickard’s theft, though AMHA acting director Stan Popp told the Independent the state investigation remains ongoing.

AMHA’s last released audit indicates the housing authority had $6.51 million in revenue in 2020 to provide housing for low-income residents of Athens County. 

Popp reiterated the agency’s claim that “AMHA has not experienced any reduction in the services it provides as a result of [Rickard’s] theft. However, the loss of funds has slowed AMHA’s ability to expand its services.”

When Rickard was indicted in February, investigators had identified at least $1.5 million in theft from the organization since 2015. Blackburn told the Independent at the time he believed the total amount Rickard stole was substantially greater. 

In order to pay the full amount of her restitution, Rickard forfeited 50% of assets in bank accounts held jointly with her husband; all bank accounts held by her alone; all money in her Ohio Public Employee Retirement System account and in her deferred compensation account; and all material goods obtained with stolen money.

Blackburn said it is unclear exactly how much money Rickard has in these accounts, but estimated the total amount at around $200,000. Rickard will have to pay the full restitution amount ordered based on her ability, he said.

Toy said, “She is giving up everything that she has.”

“Any restitution of funds AMHA receives will be reinvested into its mission,” Popp said. “Until an exact amount is known, AMHA is not able to be more specific.”

Popp said Rickard was not bonded, and while AMHA’s insurance may or may not cover any of the loss, the housing authority’s insurance policy limit is $250,000. 

“AMHA will never be made whole on the full loss,” Popp said.

Rickard also agreed to forfeit her Albany home and property as part of the agreement. Blackburn said that the home will be forfeited to law enforcement, with proceeds designated to pay for law enforcement investigation. Blackburn said the funding could be used to pay for the state auditor’s investigation. He added that he does not want his office to take in funding from the home’s sale and said he will seek an alternative arrangement with the court.

Rickard’s husband agreed that the property he shared with Rickard and the funding in joint bank accounts was subject to forfeiture. He was not required to accept these terms by law, and he was not indicted in the case.

“He’s going to be suffering because of her actions, and he is an unknowing beneficiary of her actions,” Toy said. 

Toy described Rickard’s family as among the victims of Rickard’s theft from AMHA.

“It’s brought huge consequences for her family and herself — for herself justified, and for her family, they’ve victims of this too, and they understand that, and they forgive her,” Toy said.

Rickard used AMHA funds to pay personal credit card debts as well as her mortgage, according to a February press release from the Athens County Prosecutor’s Office. Rickard’s credit card payments showed charges for large sums spent on vacations and the installation of an in-ground pool, the release said.

Rickard allegedly stole large sums of money from AMHA’s General Fund, which has since been closed, and falsified financial reports. Search warrant documents obtained by the Independent paint a picture of highly unusual circumstances that led to the eventual discovery of Rickard’s theft, including an audit related to a 2022 office fire, a death in Rickard’s family which prompted her to take leave and an anonymous tip.

Eiselstein, with the state auditor’s office, said, “Criminals can certainly be clever and when they have the keys to the store, they can be hard to catch. A lack of fiscal controls enabled Jodi Rickard to obfuscate her criminal actions for years. As the sole bookkeeper operating under little oversight, Rickard was able to conceal her actions by falsifying documents and altering transaction records. Previous audits had identified weaknesses in financial reporting and oversight by management, but these recommendations were never implemented which allowed her to continue her grift against the taxpayers of Athens County for years.”

According to an affidavit included in the December 2022 search warrants served on AMHA, Rickard’s activity was successfully concealed for many years in part through “a lack of Board monitoring” and “went undetected by the Board due to lack of reviews and monitoring.” The affidavit alleges the board saw only summary income statements and performed no review of bank accounts or reconciliations.

Former board chair Mary Nally recently stepped down from the position after moving to Meigs County, she said. Gregg Andrews, a local realtor and Hocking Athens Perry Community Action’s longtime Housing and Community Development Director, now serves as board chair, Popp said.

The housing authority has taken steps to address the issues which led to Rickard’s theft, including changes to its financial processes.

Athens County Court of Common Pleas Judge George McCarthy presided over Rickard’s criminal case until May 18, after which Hogan took over as judge, according to Bre Woods, who works in McCarthy’s office. The court initially requested a visiting judge on Feb. 14, the day following Rickard’s indictment, Woods said.

Woods said the court sought a visiting judge because both McCarthy and Judge Patrick Lang appoint members to AMHA’s board, which was considered a conflict.

NOTE: This story has been updated to reflect comments from the Ohio Auditor of State’s office.

The post Former Athens housing authority director sentenced for multi-million dollar theft appeared first on Athens County Independent.

Colleges and Students Are Stepping Up to Help Rural Newspapers

If you want to see the latest way people are helping keep rural journalism healthy, look at Ohio.

When the media company Gannett closed the Oxford Press, the community paper in the town of Oxford, faculty at Miami University saw an opportunity to enlist their students in a hands-on learning experience providing local news.

They started the Oxford Observer, a weekly newspaper staffed by Miami students and professors. 

“It’s a community relationship, but it definitely benefits the students,” said Sacha DeVroomen Bellman, the Miami University journalism instructor who leads a class that acts as the paper’s newsroom. “This is a way they can get professional work.”

About 145 miles away, students at Ohio University are providing stories to the Athens County Independent, a digital start-up covering that county founded after its editor was unjustly fired from the area’s only daily paper. And faculty member Hans Meyer plans to keep ramping up stories from students.

To the north, at Kent State University, two faculty members lead the Ohio Newslab with a focus on providing stories to rural areas. The lab partners with four community news outlets that run stories from advanced reporting classes. The faculty have raised funds to pay students and an editor who works with the classes to shape up stories and mentor students. 

“We are covering some of the more sparsely populated sections of Ohio that don’t get much media attention,” said Susan Kirkman Zake, who coordinates the program with fellow faculty member Jacqueline Marino. “I really think that’s a good news niche for us to explore, both for students and the media landscape in Ohio, because media companies are really concentrated in cities.”  

And in the center of the state sits Denison University, which is revamping its journalism curriculum to empower student coverage of rural Licking County, Ohio. Those stories, published through The Reporting Project, are available for local media to pick up. When Intel announced the construction of a $20 billion chip plant in the city of New Albany, Denison’s project was the only media outlet to cover the project’s influence on its neighbors.

“We went and sat with Danny and Barbara Vanhoose, who have lived on Green Chapel Road for 50 years, right across the road from where Intel’s front door is going to be,” said Alan Miller, a Denison journalism professor who spent three decades at the Columbus Dispatch and covered the story with faculty member Jack Shuler and student Thu Nguyen.

“We just went and visited with them while they watched and got their reaction and had an outside-the-fence view, literally, of a very big news event that everybody else was covering from inside the fence,” he said.

Those four examples showcase a trend extending far beyond Ohio. Across the nation, student reporters and their colleges are stepping in as local news outlets disappear. At the Center for Community News, our team documents partnerships between local media and colleges, and in the last year we’ve found more than 120  — many focused on bolstering news in rural areas that have been neglected as big conglomerates eat up local dailies and whittle staffs to skeleton crews. 

The University of Vermont, where the center is housed, also runs a student reporting program that works with local media. In the last year, it has provided close to 300 stories for free to community papers and other local outlets. 

These programs are not internships in the traditional sense. Students of course can get great experiences interning directly with newsrooms, but many of those internships have disappeared, and beleaguered editors can’t be expected to dive deep with their rookies on each and every story. 

But colleges can. 

In university-led reporting programs, experienced former journalists vet and assign and edit student work and work with local news outlets to assign stories that otherwise would go uncovered. 

It’s a win-win. Papers get content and students get experience. 

Richard Watts is the director of the University of Vermont’s Center for Community News, an organization that documents and brings together university-led reporting projects around the country. Justin Trombly is the editor of the Community News Service, the University of Vermont’s academic-media partnership.

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