300-foot buffer proposed for Ohio park drilling

COLUMBUS, Ohio - A state natural resource agency's proposed rules for drilling in state parks would require natural gas and oil companies to stay at least 300 feet -- the length of a football field -- from campgrounds, certain waterways and sites deemed historically or archaeologically valuable.

Documents on proposed rules were released by the state Department of Natural Resources this week after the Ohio chapter of the Sierra Club filed a lawsuit claiming the agency ignored repeated requests by the group to review them.

The proposals for drilling leases also includes an 89-page report listing "best management practices" on topics like site restoration and guidelines for emergency and pollution incidents. Other proposals include state approval before companies could store drilling waste in pits and an agreement on the locations of all drilling equipment.

Eastern Ohio is in the midst of a natural gas boom as developers seek to capture rights to Utica Shale deposits. The state passed a law in September that opened its parks and other state-held lands for drilling, and officials have been developing leasing terms for drilling companies.

Opponents say they're concerned about the environmental impact of the drilling, which includes hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking." The process involves drillers blasting millions of gallons of water, sand and chemicals deep underground to break up rock deposits.

Supporters of the law say there's a potentially vast reservoir of oil and gas in the Utica Shale, which lies below the Marcellus Shale, where oil companies in Pennsylvania have drilled thousands of wells in search of natural gas and oil.

But natural gas drilling has become a contentious issue in Pennsylvania, where public health advocates have criticized a new law that will limit accessible medical information on illnesses that may be related to gas drilling. It takes effect April 14.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, more than 130 bills have been recently introduced in 24 states to address fracking. It includes a range of topics like waste treatment, disposal regulations and requirements to publicly disclose the composition of fracturing fluid chemicals. At least nine states have proposed fracking suspensions or studies on their impact.

It's unclear whether the 300-foot buffer rule in Ohio will be applied above ground or below. A message left for a natural resource agency spokesman was not immediately returned Thursday morning.

Jed Thorp, the Sierra Club's Ohio chapter manager, said the proposals are inadequate. He said he's hopeful state lawmakers will eventually reverse the law.

"When people go to a state park, they don't want to see fracking, or hear fracking, or smell fracking," he said in a statement. "They want to relax."

Thorp also said the Sierra Club, which filed its lawsuit Monday, won't drop its suit. He said the agency failed to follow the state's public records law by ignoring requests for the documents as far back as October.

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