An environmental advocacy group says the state wants to loosen permit requirements for several project types that affect waterways, a move the group says would give fracking and coal industries a pass to destroy wetlands.
But the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency says it’s simply streamlining the process companies are required to follow for certain types of projects.
Either way, if OEPA Director Craig Butler approves the proposed changes, water quality in some parts of Ohio could be hurt, Butler acknowledged in his draft of the changes.
But he also determined any lessening of water quality was necessary, according to the draft. Butler didn’t not explain in the draft why it was necessary, but an agency spokeswoman said the agency was trying to cut red tape and support economic growth while protecting the environment.
“It’s pretty transparent that they’re granting special favors to the industries,” said Nathan Johnson, attorney for the Ohio Environmental Council, the nonprofit advocacy organization that opposes the changes.
OEPA is asking for changes to nationwide permits regarding pipeline activity, coal remining and linear transportation projects, which include road construction, said Heidi Griesmer, OEPA spokeswoman.
Pipeline activity would include shale gas from fracking, Johnson said.
In coal remining, a company could reopen an abandoned mine, Griesmer said. In some remining cases, water quality could actually be improved because the company would have to fix environmental issues created by the mines in the past, she said.
A nationwide permit is basically a general permit that covers certain types of projects, Griesmer said. If OEPA approves the permit changes, larger projects would fit under the nationwide permit and receive less scrutiny and oversight, Johnson said.
Under the current process, a project that would impact a wetland or stream needs a permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the state, she said. If the entity’s project might damage or remove a wetland, the entity must find a way to avoid or minimize the damage or replace the wetland in a different area, Johnson said.
If the changes are approved, the Ohio EPA would no longer issue the permits, leaving the decision up to the Army Corps alone, said Nathan Johnson, attorney for the Ohio Environmental Council, which opposes the proposed the changes.
“OEPA is basically just stepping out of the picture and going through the federal process, which is more stripped down,” Johnson said. “There will be less oversight and more damage to streams and wetlands.”
Griesmer, however, said the projects would first go to the OEPA, and the agency would determine whether they fall under the nationwide permit. If they do, the project proposals would be sent to the Army Corps.
The public had until last week to comment on the proposed permit changes. OEPA is reviewing comments it has received, and there is no deadline for Butler to decide whether to approve the proposal, Griesmer said.
If it is approved, the permit changes would last five years, she said.
Johnson and State Rep. Chris Redfern, D-Catawba Island, argue that any lowering of water quality standards in Ohio is a threat to the state’s waterways, including Lake Erie, in an effort to cater to fracking and coal mining. Griesmer, however, said the proposed changes do not affect fracking or one of Lake Erie’s biggest water quality issues of late: toxic algae.
“The types of proposals received for these projects don’t affect harmful algal blooms,” she said.
The changes also would put the permit process in Ohio more in line with the federal permit process, she said.
Johnson argued that West Virginia and Kentucky, two coal-mining states, already have stronger permit rules for similar projects. Reducing Ohio’s permit requirements more widens the gap when the state should be trying to catch up with its neighbors’ tougher protections for the environment, he said.