Sunday, Dec 17, 2017
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Marilou Johanek

COMMENTARY

Fracking threatens the natural wonder of Ohio's parks

Nestled in the heart of rural Guernsey County is Ohio's largest state park, a perfect spring break destination. The natural treasure and tranquillity at State Fork State Park offer all the respite you need.

The woods and fields that flank Salt Fork Reservoir are alive with new birth. Dogwood trees bloom everywhere, resembling wispy clouds hovering in forests.

The delicate white flowers contrast exquisitely with branches of budding green. It's easy to lose yourself in a park that boasts 17,229 acres of pristine playground.

We hike through a patchwork of trails, open meadows, and forested hills, and marvel at vistas made just for us. Our appreciation of Ohio's preserved natural resources deepens.

No wonder Buckeyes feel so protective of their parks. No wonder park visitors are apprehensive about what could happen to the land beneath their feet.

Salt Fork sits in southeast Ohio, one of the state's leading coal-producing areas. Massive rock formations that tower over many Guernsey County roads reveal telltale coal seams.

But today, the rock that caps the coal beds has made the region attractive to natural-gas and oil producers. They're after the oil-rich Utica and Marcellus shale formations thousands of feet below the surface.

The prospect of tapping into these ancient underground formations to extract oil and natural gas has the industry dreaming of boom times. Ohio state parks were protected from such drilling for more than 50 years.

But legislation signed last year by Gov. John Kasich opened about 174,000 acres in Ohio's 75 state parks to oil and gas exploration. Concern over risks related to drilling techniques were countered with industry and government assurances.

Reports of environmental damage from high-pressure drilling called hydraulic fracturing are greatly exaggerated, said Mr. Kasich and his oil-industry friends. Moreover, the governor said, the money-making potential of the state's natural resources is too good not to exploit.

Industry flacks echoed his optimism. They stressed that the fracking process is mostly worry-free, and insisted that solid regulations will keep it that way. Yet lurking around every professed certainty of safe fracking is uncertainty: unexplained earthquakes and environmental and health problems.

Several states, including neighboring Pennsylvania, agree, not surprisingly, that fracked wells come with trouble. Drilling rigs pump millions of gallons of water, sand, and chemicals -- some hazardous -- into wells to crack open shale formations and release oil and gas.

The liquid injection forced deep into the Earth and the briny by-product that returns to the surface for waste disposal have been blamed for toxic spills and water contamination. Until the health effects of fracking are better understood, until there is a better handle on the toxicology of fracking chemicals and how they could affect underground aquifers and drinking wells, a growing chorus of critics says the controversial drilling practice should be halted.

But the muscle of oil and gas lobbyists is mighty.

We stoop to admire wildflowers that add a splash of color to the forest floor and almost miss a skittish white-tailed deer. Before us, a rolling meadow beckons.

The untouched beauty belongs to Ohioans. Decades ago, forward-thinking state leaders made sure that magnificent tracts of Buckeye landscape were forever set apart from commercial and industrial development.

Now, state parks must accept oil and gas development on pristine landscapes. We hope it is done right. But hoping won't make it so.

Energy giants, from Chesapeake Energy to ExxonMobil, see big profit in parkland. Politicians, loath to stand in their way, see big contributions from industry heavyweights.

Republican state lawmakers have rejected Republican Governor Kasich's proposed tax hike on drillers to benefit the state. They can't bear to burden their benefactors.

The Ohio Department of Natural Resources won't disclose how the state will oversee drilling activity in state parks. After repeated attempts to get the department to turn over public records, the Sierra Club's Ohio chapter sued for the information.

"Ohioans have the right to know about backroom deals being made to bring fracking into our state parks," club manager Jed Thorp said in a statement. They have a right to demand responsible, transparent stewardship of some of the state's most beautiful public land.

Fracturing Ohio's Utica Shale in and around Salt Fork may be a walk in the park for powerful energy companies. But for us, the state parks are an irreplaceable refuge of trees and tranquillity that the wrong drilling rig could ruin.

Marilou Johanek is a columnist for The Blade.

Contact her at: mjohanek@theblade.com

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