A three year investigation by the advocacy group, Earthworks finds that regulators in Ohio failed to act on more than a third of complaints by residents living near oil and gas development.
Earthworks looked into pollution from the oil and gas industry, and how Ohio handled citizen complaints from 2018 – 2020. It concluded that Ohio’s public complaint system is “effectively impossible for the public to use.”
“There are a lot of barriers that we encountered in using the complaint system,” said Leann Leiter, one of the report’s authors. “I think would be even harder for the general public to try to squeeze in around the other activities of their lives, without a specialized set of knowledge.”
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As part of its investigation, Earthworks employed certified thermographers to use optical gas imaging (OGI) at oil and gas wells, natural gas compressor stations, and other industry infrastructure. OGI can make visible the unseen air pollution caused by intentional safety releases, equipment failures, and operator errors in oil and gas fields.
In some cases, Earthworks found leaks of methane and volatile organic compounds like benzene.
Based on these findings, the group along with residents filed 31 complaints with Ohio’s Environmental Protection Agency (OEPA), Department of Natural Resources (ODNR) and Department of Health.
According to the report, the agencies took action to reduce pollution in nine cases (29% of complaints). In three cases (10%), regulators contacted facility operators and conducted inspections, but did not issue any violations.
Twelve cases (39%) did not lead to any action by regulators. The results of the remaining seven complaints are unclear, as the cases remain open.
The report also found Ohio agencies lack consistent protocols and policies on the handling of public complaints. “Neither OEPA nor ODNR have publicly issued any requirements for inspectors and other staff to respond to complainants in particular ways or within specific timeframes,” according to the report.
It sometimes took multiple filings, repeated emails and phone calls to get a response on whether and how a complaint was being addressed. There was a clear “luck of the draw” element to the complaint filing process, with variability across regulatory districts and individual inspectors, according to the report.
In a 2019 investigation, The Allegheny Front found similar experiences of people who complained about the oil and gas industry to ODNR. An analysis of complaints to the agency from 2009 through 2018 showed that 2,906 complaints were specifically about the oil and gas industry. A deeper analysis of 2017 data found that of 389 complaints, three-quarters appeared to be unresolved.
As part of the investigation, 26 people with unresolved cases from 2017 were interviewed. Eighteen said they were not satisfied with the state’s response to their complaints. They told stories about their water turning orange overnight, about piles of dirt being dumped in farm fields, about sulfur smells, and fish kills.
LISTEN to some of these Ohio residents’ stories (produced by Jack Austin):
Leiter said their investigation found that Ohio is biased toward industry, and the results show that this bias even reaches into the complaint process, meant to focus on citizens’ concerns.
“[The complaint process] is presented as sort of their hope for getting help,” she said. “And it’s extremely concerning that that dynamic continues through in that area that’s supposed to be designed to serve the public.”
Earthworks outlines several improvements in its report, like having inspectors work directly with people who file complaints, and providing a publicly accessible tracking system for complaints as well as a map.
In an email, Ohio EPA spokesman James Lee said the agency is responsive to those who contact it for assistance. “We also have staff who conduct inspections, respond to citizen complaints, and review reports to help ensure compliance,” he said.
Lee also said oil and gas operators are required to obtain permits that meet state and federal air pollution rules, and pointed to leak detection and repair requirements that help control emissions of volatile organic chemicals and methane.
ODNR did not respond with a comment for this story.