Official testifying on Ohio fracking oversight

JULIE CARR SMYTH AP Statehouse Correspondent Published:

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) -- Ohio's top oil and gas regulator went to Washington on Wednesday to endorse state oversight of fracking, rather than federal, and the disposal of wastewater from drilling.

Rick Simmers, chief of the state's Division of Oil and Gas Resources, told The Associated Press he planned to focus his testimony before the U.S. House Natural Resources Committee on Ohio's strong regulations and positive track record of enforcement of fracking. Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, is a technique to extract hard-to-reach gas and oil by pummeling rocks deep underground with high-pressure water, sand and chemicals.

Ohio, Utah and Texas were represented at the hearing.

The appearance by Simmers follows calls last month by a coalition of environmental and community groups for a federal review of Ohio's state-run program. Simmers did not believe the invitation to appear was related to the complaint.

Groups including ProgressOhio and the Buckeye Forest Council cited recent federal indictments of a Youngstown-area businessman and his employee for alleged illegal dumping of oil and gas waste, and a series of earthquakes near Youngstown among their concerns.

Simmers said Ohio's program imposes tougher regulations than its sister program within the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and has received high marks in peer reviews joined by both outside regulators and environmental groups.

"We welcome any review of our program because we're doing a great job," he said. "We are both better suited and better situated to run this program than the federal EPA."

Simmers said inspectors employed by his division, a part of the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, live in the communities they serve and so are able to quickly conduct inspections and respond to emergencies.

He said the Kasich administration has worked to improve regulations to reflect the latest technology and science in the burgeoning oil and gas industry and to crack down on environmental violators.

In announcing last month's complaint, Teresa Mills of the Center for Health, Environment and Justice, alleged the state Natural Resources Department had become "a captured agency" because it relies on the industry it regulates for income.

Activists questioned whether the agency can impartially conduct the investigation ordered by Gov. John Kasich into whether potentially lax regulations led to the dumping incident alleged by federal prosecutors.

In February, Hardrock Excavating LLC owner Ben Lupo and employee Michael Guesman were accused of violating the Clean Water Act by illegally dumping oil and gas wastes into a storm drain. The two pleaded not guilty.

Lupo also owns D&L Energy, whose deep injection well was at the epicenter of more than a dozen earthquakes in the Youngstown area, mostly in late 2011. An earthquake on the eve of 2012 prompted Gov. John Kasich to issue a temporary moratorium on new injection activity in the vicinity.

The department has pointed out the D&L Energy and Hardrock Excavating both had state permits issued by Simmers' division and the Ohio EPA revoked after the Jan. 31 incident.

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