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TOP STORIES OF 2021: Environmental issues at forefront for many in 2021

T-L Photo/ROBERT A. DEFRANK During a meeting of the Belmont County commissioners, Bev Reed of Bridgeport, a member of Concerned Ohio River Residents, shows pictures from a study of activities at the Austin Master waste management plant in Martins Ferry.

EDITOR’S NOTE: The Times Leader presents a look back at the past year today through Friday with Eastern Ohio’s Top 10 stories of 2021, as selected by the newspaper’s editorial staff.

MARTINS FERRY — Environmental activists were vocal throughout 2021, mainly speaking out about their concerns related to the natural gas and oil industry.

Members of local groups including the Concerned Ohio River Residents spoke publicly in a few settings. Not only did they visit the Belmont County Board of Commissioners and Martins Ferry City Council on multiple occasions, but they also hosted their own forums where panelists spoke to attendees.

Jill Hunkler of Barnesville, a CORR member, approached commissioners regarding the Austin Master Services waste management facility in Martins Ferry.

“We’ve been working with a coalition of local, state and national environmental groups to bring attention to this dangerous facility,” Hunkler said. “They are processing fracking waste.”

Hunkler said the plant has documented violations, issues related to worker safety, and added there are concerns about its close proximity to a sports field nearby. The plant is situated along the Ohio River on First Street in Martins Ferry. Hunkler also said the Ohio Department of Natural Resources has not written sufficient regulations for such facilities and asked commissioners to speak to a fire chief from outside the area who has taken issue with these operations.

Stephanie O’Grady, spokeswoman for the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, said via email that all oil and gas waste facilities must conform with the law and the Ohio Revised Code.

The owners of Austin Masters at first had no comment. But as CORR members, including Bev Reed of Bridgeport and the Rev. Michael Ziebarth of Martins Ferry, continued to visit public meetings and speak about the plant, the company issued a statement in October, and city leaders were provided with a tour of the facility.

Austin Master Services spokesman Christopher Martin said the Martins Ferry frack waste processing facility has made $2 million in improvements and is apprising the city’s fire department of its emergency response plans. Martin said the waste processed at the building, which once was part of Wheeling-Pittsburgh Steel, arrives there wet.

“It is important to know that all waste that arrives at our facility is wet – this means that the material must go through a process similar to the local wastewater treatment facility. Water is removed from the material through various steps and then dried. Once it is dried our team prepares the material for removal to a landfill or a radioactive waste facility,” he said.

Martin also said the business is working on issues pointed out by the ODNR.

“We are dedicated to improving our process and have a very strong relationship with ODNR. With that said, our team is currently working to comply with their recommended action items,” he said. “It is important to call out that the ODNR reports showcase a snapshot in time and if someone reads all the reports you can see the actions taken by our team — in fact, you can see that ODNR includes the improvements made from one report to the next.”

One of CORR’s main concerns has been protecting the city’s drinking water from any possible contamination of the aquifer the city water treatment plant draws from. CORR is concerned that Austin Master and the waste it receives could impact the underground well fields. It also has pointed out the facility is located within the city’s Source Water Protection Area.

Martin said Austin Master Services is complying with ODNR regulations regarding containment of waste. And Martins Ferry Mayor John Davies had the city’s water tested for radium – something he now plans to do regularly. The testing showed a radium level below the drinking water limits set by the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency, Davies said.

In addition to the focus on Austin Master, Hunkler and other environmentalists raised objections to the New Jersey-based Omni Energy Group’s saltwater injection well site at the intersection of U.S. 40 and Ohio 331. Since the drilling permit was issued at the end of 2020, work on the facilities have been ongoing despite local objections that the area is highly traveled and numerous government sites, residences and education centers are nearby.

Hunkler mentioned an accidental fluid release at the site and said the construction has inconvenienced and potentially endangered nearby residents.

And they have suggested development of the proposed PTT Global Chemical America ethane cracker plant at Dilles Bottom now seems unlikely. Citing financial analyses that indicate the plastics market and economy are not favorable for a new cracker plant at this time, they have said the facility would cause pollution and unnecessary plastics proliferation.

Hunkler spoke in favor of alternatives such as regenerative agriculture and hemp production.

Belmont County Commissioner J.P. Dutton said the board was open to any new information but said PTTGCA will make its decision depending on its own analysis.

“I think if it does come to pass … it’ll be the most efficient plant … across the United States,” he said.

Dutton said the commissioners have been in contact with ODNR on a regular basis, relating concerns and following up on incidents such as the fluid release.

“We’re not just solely focused on oil and gas when it comes to economic development,” he said. “We’re more diversified than that. … A potential project that meets all environmental standards, that is at least going to create 350 permanent jobs which would be a major influx of employment in the county at six-figure salaries.”

PTTGCA has said it continues to seek an investment partner on the potential project and remains committed to building an ethane cracker in Belmont County.

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