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Ohio Opposition Wins Legal Standing In Bellwether Fight To Stop Drilling Near Lake

An Ohio couple has won a small battle in a larger fight to stop Antero Resources Corp. from development efforts near Seneca Lake in southeast Ohio after a common pleas court judge denied motions to dismiss a lawsuit that aims to stop horizontal hydraulic fracturing (fracking) under and around the lake.

Leatra Harper and Steven Jansto, who own property and pay taxes near the lake, were granted legal standing in their complaint against Antero, the Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR) and the Muskingum Watershed Conservancy District (MWCD). Judge Timothy S. Horton rejected the defendants argument that the couple had no legal standing and that their claims were unjustified. The ruling will allow the lawsuit, filed in October 2013 and seeking an injunction on drilling in the area, to go forward.

Although many similar issues have failed on appeal in higher courts, the ruling was a significant one in Ohio. For starters, the MWCD, with borders that encompass Seneca Lake in Guernsey County, covers more than 8,000 miles and spans five counties, along with portions of 22 others. It is a political subdivision, and therefore considered a public entity, that oversees a system of reservoirs and dams that help reduce floods and preserve water.

Along with growing volumes of drilling-related wastewater, earthquakes in the northeastern part of the state and damage to the state's roads (see Shale Daily, April 11; Jan. 2, 2012), the water district has slowly become a bellwether for staunch opposition to fracking in Ohio. As the Seneca Lake lawsuit moves forward, Antero is in negotiations with the MWCD for another 6,700 acres near Piedmont Lake in Belmont and Harrison counties that would give it access to drill on the district's land (see Shale Daily, April 3).

In February 2013, the MWCD signed a $40.3 million lease with Antero to drill on property adjacent to the district and access mineral rights under the lake (see Shale Daily, Feb. 21, 2013). The district has also signed Utica Shale leases with Gulfport Energy Corp. in Harrison County and non-development leases with Chesapeake Energy Corp. in Carroll County in 2012. Additionally, the MWCD has sold water to Antero and Gulfport in the past (see Shale Daily, April 23, 2013).

Harper is an anti-fracking activist with the Southeast Ohio Alliance to Save Our Water. She also recently co-founded the FreshWater Accountability Project, which won a lawsuit in a state appeals court earlier this month to obtain the addresses of those who lease residential and commercial property from the MWCD to raise awareness among property owners for what the group has deemed the dangers of drilling inside the district .

"To force us to file a lawsuit to obtain records is just another example of how the MWCD believes it does not have to adhere to the principles of democracy and accountability as a public agency receiving tax dollars," Harper said in a statement after a ruling on the records lawsuit. "The MWCD receives a large amount of its revenue from people like me as a property taxpayer with the district. This political subdivision also receives huge amounts of rental income from those who have houses on reservoirs that are also being leased for fracking."

According to court documents, Harper and Jansto have moved away from their Seneca Lake property, citing personal health concerns due to a drilling pad one mile from their land. They also contend that MWCD has no right to lease land without the consent of tax paying landowners living inside its borders.

The couple has argued that ODNR blatantly ignored a HydroQuest geological study they submitted for consideration when the agency approved Antero's permits. They have said their property values will be affected, while the geologic study "warns with virtual certainty that development of fracking wells in the immediate vicinity of Lake Seneca will cause leakage of gas, fracking fluids, flowback fluid and toxic contaminants into the geological formations affecting Seneca Lake."

"Not only is there taxation without representation in the MWCD, there is fracking without environmental or human health impact assessments," said Terry Lodge, the accountability project's attorney. "Many people have no idea of the subsurface rights and even surface rights that the MWCD plans to lease with property around Piedmont Lake, the fourth of the MWCD reservoirs to be leased for fracking along with Leesville, Clendening and Seneca. We suspect [Tappan Lake] is next."

The group is hoping to raise awareness about the district's leasing activities to drum up opposition against future deals.

The district has managed oil and gas leases over the course of its 80-year history. There are currently 275 vertical Clinton Sandstone wells that earn it royalties. Theodore Lozier, chief of conservation, said earlier this month that the district is committed to environmental safeguards and has initiated a thorough public input process, while also negotiating for stricter provisions that allow more oversight in its leases with unconventional operators.

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