My County is Poor and Remote. Fracking Companies Think They Can Abuse It.

Alison Stine February 12, 2018

Demonstrators in Athens County, Ohio, rally in support of the "Athens Eight"—eight local farmers and business owners who were arrested after blocking frack waste trucks from accessing an injection well site in 2014.

My south­east­ern Ohio town in the Appalachi­an foothills is a small, rur­al place where the demo­li­tion der­by is a hot tick­et, Wal­mart is the biggest store, and peo­ple in the sur­round­ing vil­lages must often dri­ve for 30 min­utes to gro­cery shop.

Athens holds the unfor­tu­nate dis­tinc­tion of being the poor­est coun­ty in the state: an area that is both stun­ning — with rolling hills, rocky cliffs, pas­tures, and ravines — and inac­ces­si­ble, far from industry.

It’s here, at the Hazel Gins­burg well in Alexan­der Town­ship, that frack­ing com­pa­nies dump their waste. Trucks ship that sludge of tox­ic chem­i­cals and undrink­able water across the coun­try and inject it into my county’s for­got­ten ground.

My step-grand­moth­er, the daugh­ter of a Ken­tucky min­er, used to tell me sto­ries of wash­ing her clothes in pol­lut­ed red water, down­stream from mines. Coal com­pa­nies exploit­ed employ­ees like her father, pay­ing him in com­pa­ny scrip and keep­ing him poor and exploit­ing the land.

That kind of abuse con­tin­ues. It’s just changed shape. The Gins­burg well has a long his­to­ry of vio­la­tions, so many that the Ohio Depart­ment of Nat­ur­al Resources ordered it shut.

It was not.

It’s a pit well, which looks like an old swim­ming pool, cov­ered by a tarp. No sign indi­cates the pres­ence of chem­i­cals, just a no tres­pass­ing” sign. Alleged­ly, a guard will snap your pic­ture if you stop or turn your car around. The well is locat­ed in a res­i­den­tial area, with hous­es — some with swing sets — just down the road.

The frack waste stor­age pit of the Hazel Gins­burg well near Albany, Ohio. Note the makeshift shack behind the pit. (Image: slow​down​frack​ing​.word​press​.com)

In 2012, Made­line ffitch (whose last name is spelled low­er­case and with the dou­ble ff) was arrest­ed there. Her arrest was part of an action by a local anti-frack­ing group, Appalachia Resist. The then 31-year-old’s arms were locked into cement-filled plas­tic drums just before the gates, block­ing the entrance.

Two years lat­er, Chris­tine Hugh­es, co-founder of the local Vil­lage Bak­ery, was arrest­ed protest­ing against anoth­er well site, as were sev­en oth­ers. My town called them the Athens 8” and they were hailed as heroes.

Ffitch and her young fam­i­ly con­tin­ue to protest wells, despite the attempts of the frack­ing indus­try to, accord­ing to her, paint any­one who is orga­niz­ing resis­tance around this stuff as out­siders or extrem­ists.” Her hus­band, Peter Gib­bons-Ballew, was arrest­ed in a peace­ful protest in 2016, while ffitch watched, their baby strapped to her chest.

Our local econ­o­my now depends on tourism and farm­ing. The long, humid grow­ing sea­son makes this part of Appalachia ide­al for wild spe­cial­ties such as paw­paws, black wal­nuts and mush­rooms. And many hunters stay here to be near our famous bucks.

By con­t­a­m­i­nat­ing the envi­ron­ment, frack­ing waste­water wells threat­en all these busi­ness­es. In 2015, tank trucks inject­ed 4 mil­lion bar­rels of waste into my small coun­ty alone.

It’s hard to get answers about what is in that waste. But Jason Trem­by, an engi­neer­ing pro­fes­sor at Ohio Uni­ver­si­ty, is lead­ing a local team to clean” frack­ing waste­water using ultra­vi­o­let light, water soft­en­ing tech­niques, and a high pres­sure reactor.

It makes sense to me that a solu­tion to the wells might come not from out­side, but from peo­ple like ffitch, Hugh­es, and Trem­bly, work­ing and liv­ing in Appalachia. Peo­ple are used to doing things for them­selves here — and used to the com­mu­ni­ty help­ing the community.

I keep hop­ing more will be done to pro­tect this place. You want to for­get it,” begins the Appalachi­an-born Ruth Stone’s poem Garbage.” But the frack­ing waste in the injec­tion wells of Appalachia can’t be for­got­ten forever.

It’ll bub­ble up, one way or anoth­er, before long.

(Amer­i­ca Dumps Its Frack­ing Waste in My Ohio Town” was orig­i­nal­ly pub­lished on Oth​er​Words​.org under a Cre­ative Com­mons license. It was adapt­ed from a larg­er sto­ry, com­mis­sioned by the Eco­nom­ic Hard­ship Report­ing Project, that appeared in the Guardian.)

Ali­son Stine is a writer, visu­al artist and author. She is a writ­ing fel­low for the Cen­ter for Com­mu­ni­ty Change. Her work has appeared in The Atlantic, The Nation, The Paris Review and Jezebel.
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