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Ferry residents quiz commissioners at town hall

T-L Photos/ROBERT A. DEFRANK Sean O’Leary, a researcher for the Ohio River Valley Institute, speaks to the Belmont County Board of Commissioners during a town hall meeting Tuesday. O’Leary and his group, which opposes the oil and gas industry, suggested investing in other types of projects would promote economic growth.

MARTINS FERRY — Riverside residents quizzed the Belmont County commissioners Tuesday about a range of subjects from the environment to the economic future and road maintenance during a town hall meeting at the Veterans Memorial Recreation Center.

Martins Ferry city leaders and officials, some residents of surrounding communities and environmentalists attended.

Sean O’Leary, a researcher for the Ohio River Valley Institute, asked to meet with the commissioners to discuss a model for job creation and economic development. He said his organization has issued a series of reports about the impact of the oil and gas industry, arguing that its impact on jobs, the population and quality of life has been “limited, and in some cases negative.” Members continue to oppose plans for an ethane cracker plant in the Dillies Bottom area along Ohio 7.

“You may have reservations and disagreements with the findings that we have. I think we can agree that opportunities to reverse ongoing job loss and population loss and other issues are really important and should at least be examined,” O’Leary said.

The commissioners commented on the economic impact of East Ohio Regional Hospital’s reopening and commended Dr. John Johnson for his investment in Martins Ferry.

However, Bev Reed of Bridgeport raised concerns that the nearby Austin Master Services fracking waste recycling plant could contaminate the area.

The Rev. Michael Ziebarth, pastor of the Greek Orthodox Christian Church of the Life-Giving Fountain in Martins Ferry, voiced concerns about the discovery of per- and polyfluoroakyl substances, or PFAS, in Bridgeport village water last year. He asked if the commissioners and other local leaders could do more to ask that the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency test more often for these and other rare chemicals.

“Is that … something that is on your radar?” he asked. “You’d want to make sure this is frequently checked by whoever’s competent to do it.”

Commissioner Jerry Echemann agreed that the OEPA should be more aggressive.

Martins Ferry Councilman Bruce Shrodes said he believes testing has been more frequent.

In other matters, Martins Ferry Councilwoman Suzanne Armstrong asked if the commissioners had any plans to assist the Belmont County Health Department in replacing or remodeling its facilities.

Echemann agreed something should be done, adding the department’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic has underlined the shortcomings of the current facilities.

“This era of COVID kind of opened the eyes … to the inadequacies of that facility,” Commissioner Josh Meyer said. “We’re going to have a follow-up conversation with them to see how things go.”

“It’s not the best situation out there. Eventually something will have to be done,” Echemann said, adding options include remodeling or finding an entirely new facility. “I don’t think there’s any question that the need is there, and we discuss it a lot. … I think we’ve done a pretty good job keeping up with the maintenance issues.”

Martins Ferry City Council President Rick Rodgers suggested Martins Ferry’s 4th Ward has a piece of property that could be sold for a new health department building.

Richard Hord of Martins Ferry, who helped organize the town hall, suggested tearing down the old jail building near the courthouse and erecting a new building for the health department.

Armstrong also asked if the commissioners could do more to encourage vaccination among county residents. Commissioner J.P. Dutton said the health department continues outreach efforts.

“They’re still holding remote clinics. They’re trying to make the vaccine as accessible as possible,” Dutton said.

In other matters, Rob Reed of Bridgeport said there is an ongoing problem of visibility at the intersection of Ohio 149 and Ohio 147 in the southern part of the county — a frequent danger to motorists. Reed said heavy truck traffic also contributes to the danger.

“That intersection, particularly at night, is so horrible,” he said.

Echemann said the commissioners could look into the matter, adding that installing reflectors might be one solution.

The commissioners also gave a summary of ongoing and future projects, including upgrading water and sewer systems, the new and operating justice center housing the county courts and prosecutor’s office, and considerations for constructing a new records building. They also promoted Senior Services and 911 levies that will appear on the Nov. 2 ballot.

The commissioners also mentioned a private company, Ohio Gig, planning to install fiber cable for internet access in rural areas, beginning near the Union Local School District. Martins Ferry Service Director Andy Sutak speculated that competition might spur current internet providers to make better offers.

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