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Leaders object to virtual meeting

ST. CLAIRSVILLE — Belmont County commissioners officially registered their objections to a virtual public meeting regarding two proposed injection wells Monday in a letter to the Ohio Department of Natural Resources.

The board wrote to ODNR Director Mary Mertz about permits filed by Omni Energy Group LLC of New Jersey, seeking to construct a pair of Class II injection wells near the intersection of Interstate 70, U.S. 40 and Ohio 331 in Richland Township. ODNR’s Division of Oil and Gas Resources Management is scheduled to host the online session regarding these permit applications from 12:30-2:30 p.m. Friday — Good Friday, which is a “day that many in our community consider a religious holiday,” the commissioners wrote.

Since at least May, residents living and working near the proposed site have voiced concerns and objections to the plan.

The wells would be used for disposal of brine, a waste product generated by the natural gas drilling and fracking processes. That brine contains chemicals used in fracking; those chemical combinations are protected information, as they are considered trade secrets among the various natural gas producing companies.

In addition to worries about potentially dangerous or radioactive chemicals and materials, nearby residents have expressed concerns about increased truck traffic and noise in the area if the wells are installed.

According to their letter, the commissioners continue to hear from those who would be affected by the wells. In fact, they requested that ODNR host a public meeting in Belmont County to hear directly from those who are opposed to the plan. However, they wrote that they “strongly disagree with the planned upcoming virtual meeting” and do not believe it will serve that purpose.

The commissioners point out that while they understand the need to continue government services while slowing the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, they do not believe the virtual meeting will allow many people who wish to participate to do so. They cite the fact that using WebEx video conferencing will only allow the first 200 people to gain access to the session. They further point out that many people in rural areas such as Belmont County have limited or no access to internet service.

The commissioners also note that elderly people will be less likely to participate in a virtual meeting format. And they state that the time and day of the planned session will prohibit people who are not available during normal business hours from taking part.

“The purpose of a public meeting is to encourage participation from those impacted,” they wrote. “In this case, we believe that a virtual meeting at this particular moment in time will only discourage our residents.”

The commissioners close by asking that the virtual meeting be canceled and scheduled to be held in the county “at a more appropriate time.” If the meeting goes forward as planned, the commissioners ask that an additional public meeting be held in Belmont County before a decision on the permits is made.

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