Keeping Land Unfractured

Photo by Maddie Schroeder

Photo by Maddie Schroeder

Ryan Flynn

A corkboard hangs on the wall of Village Bakery across from the cash register. Customers come and go, their personal thoughts, feelings and opinions all their own. Yet the corkboard remains a stationary venue for those customers to voice their concerns. Plastered with flyers, pins, stickers and non-contextual quotes and one-liners, the corkboard clearly displays thoughts and opinions Athens locals have — and it seems fracking is on the mind.

Hydraulic fracturing, also known as fracking, is a fossil-fuel extraction process that uses extremely high-pressured jets of fluid to smash open holes in rock located miles beneath the earth’s surface. The fluid is a mixture of water, sand and chemicals. After it is shot into the earth, the mixture is pumped back out. Now, a hazardous byproduct called “wastewater,” along with natural gas and oil, is free to escape from the exposed pores in the rock. In recent years, Athens has become a confluence of wastewater injection wells, meaning the unsafe material is being pumped into the ground in different sites across the county. Also, interest in the potential for fracking in the area has increased. Simultaneously, Village Bakery has become a gathering place for anti-fracking activists.

“Rather than anything else, I wanted it to belong to the community,” says Christine Hughes, owner of Village Bakery. “People kind of seemed like they were waiting for something like that in this neighborhood.”

The bakery promotes sustainability by utilizing solar energy, using local, organic ingredients and discouraging waste production through the use of compostable containers. Those practices have brought in customers with similar interests. At first, Hughes says, her customer base consisted of food-conscious Athens locals. It wasn’t until about 2010, when landmen from West Virginia-based Cunningham Energy, LLC, began showing up in town, that her customers brought fracking to the discussion board.

The landmen were carrying out Cunningham Energy’s self-proclaimed, “aggressive” growth plans by leasing the mineral rights of about 40,000 acres of land in Athens. Companies leased land before they knew what to do with it, partly because there was more money in the potential of finding natural gas and oil than in the fuels themselves. Reselling land leases is how large companies such as Chesapeake Energy made billions. Cunningham Energy was looking to cash in on the fracking hype, and they chose Athens as a test site.

Parts of eastern Ohio rest on the Utica and Marcellus Shales, which are gigantic layers of rock beneath the earth’s surface, rich in natural gas and spanning northern Appalachia. Cunningham Energy hoped Athens’ proximity to those lucrative extents of land would create an opportunity for fracking in the county. However, Athens sits on the outer edge of the shales, outside of the hottest fracking zones.

Yet, Cunningham Energy still leveraged lease sales. A 2012 Athens News article states the landmen offered $2,500 per acre to landowners when they arrived. However, the offers were lowered to $125 per acre after a study done by the Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR) speculated the Marcellus and Utica Shales are too thin in Athens to make drilling worthwhile. When the landmen came to Athens in 2010 and 2011, the company held events at the Ohio University Inn and the Dairy Barn Arts Center, inviting landowners to come and sell areas of their land. Hughes and other concerned locals visited the events to witness the signings firsthand. She says the landmen convinced landowners to sign leases they didn’t fully understand.

“A lot of landowners were getting contacted by these landmen, and they didn’t know a reason why not to sign up,” Hughes says.

Smiles Welch, a friend of Hughes, attended the first signing event at the OU Inn with a recorder to document the transactions. Hughes says Welch was quickly escorted out and was threatened after telling the landmen he was recording. Back at Village Bakery, the conversation shifted from one of concern to one of action.

“They basically put you in a cubicle by yourself... and they pretty much lead you into signing an agreement right then and there,” Hughes says.

Hughes says people were upset. She held meetings in another one of her businesses, Catalyst Cafe, over growing discomfort with what was happening in the community. The potential risks of fracking, such as pollution of groundwater, air and soil, were discussed. Word of the leases spread to friends and other community members, tension grew and neighbors began to argue.

“We did not ask for this, [for] fracking to come into our community,” Hughes says. “... It was just so frustrating and painful to be fighting with people that we love.”

Such frustration led Hughes and another Athens activist, Nancy Pierce, to develop First Stop Leasing, an organization that came together to predispose landowners to more information before meeting with the landmen. To do so, they took out ads in the paper and printed signs at Kinkos to create a presence. On the day of the second lease-signing event, Cunningham Energy rented out the second floor of the Dairy Barn Arts Center. First Stop Leasing rented out the first floor. As landowners came in to meet with the landmen, they had to walk past First Stop Leasing, who informed them all about what they were getting into. It was literally a “first stop.”

“After a half a day of this, one of the landmen came storming downstairs and said, ‘Something’s not right, because we’re not getting anybody signing up our leases!’” Hughes says. “So, we were able to educate people in the community.”

First Stop Leasing offered prior knowledge that many landowners approached by landmen don’t have. Paul Feezel, a landowner and activist from Carroll County, Ohio, would have appreciated a First Stop Leasing of his own when the fracking boom hit his town. Roughly 100 miles north of Athens, Carroll County resides in the heartland of active fracking in Ohio. From about 2009 to 2010, exploration wells to test for natural gas began to be drilled there. Feezel says that by 2011, half a dozen landmen were at his door every week.

“The first one that came to us ... they offered us $50 an acre,” Feezel says. By the time the boom ended, the figures were more in the range of $5,000 to $6,000 per acre. Feezel held out for the best deal possible, and now he has continuous tests done to the air, water and soil in and around his land to monitor pollution. Although he was skeptical from the beginning, he says others in his community were not so prudent.

“... People that aren’t used to that or are either not willing or able to take the time to go do the research, it’s hard [for them],” Feezel says. “What if somebody came to you and said, ‘I'm willing to buy your house, right now, today, I’ve got a check in my hand.’ And they just give a number, and you don't know what it's worth. And they say we’ll give you $100,000 right now, just sign that paper.”

Heather Cantino, a frequenter of Village Bakery, is an activist and member of the Athens County Fracking Action Network (ACFAN). She was involved in the First Stop Leasing protest. Prior to becoming a full-time activist, she worked within the Buckeye Environmental Network, now the Buckeye Forest Council (BFC), where she helped work on forest issues. Now, Cantino and ACFAN are fighting land leasing taking place in Ohio’s Wayne National Forest in Washington and Monroe counties. If carried out, the leasing will allow natural gas companies to use fracking on federal land that is meant to be allocated as a preserve for its immense biodiversity.

According to the Forest Service, the national forest was not always the sizable collection of native trees it is today. Between 1850 and 1920, mining, farming and timber trade stripped bare much of the land that makes up the national forest. By the 1930s, those industries had used up the resources and abandoned much of the land in southern Ohio. In 1934, the Ohio State Legislature approved a bill that allowed for the federal government to purchase the once proud forests that were no longer being cultivated. Those areas of land became what is now the national forest and, through the work of the Civilian Conservation Corps, the land was reforested.
Now, the national forest faces leasing of its preserved land by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM). Wendy Park, an attorney fighting to prevent fracking in Wayne National Forest, says the leasing is a huge contradiction to the forest’s intended purposes. According to the Sierra Club, the BLM started leasing land in the national forest for fracking in 2016, after issuing an environmental assessment that found no significant impact of oil and gas drilling in Marietta, Ohio. That was five years after leasing had originally been proposed in the national forest, but it was not pursued due to strong oppositional lobbying by groups such as the Sierra Club, ACFAN and BFC.

In May 2017, the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD),  a worldwide nonprofit aimed at protecting endangered wildlife through legal action and grassroots activism, filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Forest Service to challenge the lease auctions in Wayne National Forest. The Forest Service is the operating entity in charge of the national forest, which ultimately allowed the BLM to begin auctioning its land. Park, the lead attorney in the lawsuit, says the CBD has been closely following the leases since its inception in 2011. Specifically, the CBD has brought claims against the Forest Service under the 1970 National Environmental Policy Act and the 1973 Endangered Species Act. According to Park, the national forest provides habitat for endangered species such as the Indiana bat, the northern long-eared bat and the tri-colored bat.

The extremely biodiverse hardwood forest is also public land. According to Ballotpedia, a nonprofit political encyclopedia, only 1.14 percent of Ohio’s land is federally owned.

“These lands should actually be preserved for the public to enjoy and recreate,” Park says.

Through her research for the suit, she has found that many people opposed to fracking consider Wayne National Forest a peaceful refuge that would be ruined by the commotion of fracking. Also, the forest is located near currents that eventually funnel into the Ohio River, Park says. The CBD is concerned about potential chemical leakage that could end up in the river and about the many potential opportunities for fracking wastewater spills. Fracking in Ohio has not had an accident-free history.

On June 28, 2014, a fire broke out at a fracking gas well in Clarington, Ohio, 60 miles northeast of Athens in Monroe County. The Eisenbarth well patch, owned by the Norwegian company Equinor (previously named Statoil), caught fire when flammable liquid leaking from a ruptured hydraulic hose ignited on a hot surface. The fire quickly spread across the well pad, a frightening proposition considering the abundance of chemicals and explosive materials on-site. Firefighters quickly worked to limit the fire’s spread, using about 300,000 gallons of water to maintain a curtain around its blaze. The water ran off into the  nearby stream, a tributary of Opossum Creek, which runs throughout southeastern Ohio and then eventually into the Ohio River. The ODNR Division of Wildlife estimated that harsh chemicals in the runoff from the well pad killed 70,000 fish in a 5-mile stretch of the creek.

The fire in Clarington is just one example of how fracking can lead to environmental disaster. Currently, Park’s legal battle is filed in the Federal District Court in Columbus. A decision is expected to be made on whether the leasing in Wayne National Forest can continue by the end of 2019. The Forest Service has implemented a new plan, which creates an opportunity to update the review process from 2006, which found no substantial increased impact from fracking in comparison to traditional oil extraction methods.

As for the patrons of Village Bakery, they continue to fight in Athens, with their attention drawn to Wayne National Forest.  Hughes, Cantino and others fall into a small crowd working to fight for environmental protection.

“All these people … became activists because they were directly affected,” Hughes says.

Some of them have been activists for years. For others, fracking coming to their community was the push they needed to start calling themselves ‘activists.’ For Hughes, it was something that needed to be done.

“I wasn’t a full-time activist [before fracking], but I guess I am now.”