Appalachia Resist and ACFAN Blockaders Plead to Reduced Charges

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The February 1 Action consisted of members of Appalachia Resist and the Athens County Fracking Action Network (ACFAN)

by Jim Phillips / Athens News

Eight protesters who last month briefly shut down an eastern Athens County injection well for oil-and-gas drilling wastes took a plea bargain in Athens County Municipal Court this morning (Monday).

The eight, whose individual cases were handled by the court en masse, had all been charged with criminal trespass, a fourth-degree misdemeanor. All agreed to plead no contest to a lower charge of disorderly conduct, a minor misdemeanor, and each received a fine of $150, with $100 of that amount suspended.

As a condition of the deal, the protesters must remain law-abiding citizens for one year, and have no contact with the well site where the demonstration took place.

Arrested Feb. 1 for their involvement in a protest at an injection well near Torch, Ohio, operated by the West Virginia firm of K&H Partners, LLC, were More (Smiles) Welch of Athens; Sean Pavlac of Cleveland; Caprice Huffman of Sunbury, Ohio; Gilbert (Kip) Rondy of Amesville; Michelle Ajamian of Millfield; Christine Hughes of Athens; Timothy Fultz of Athens; and Elizabeth Florentino of Athens.

Rondy, an organic farmer who with his wife owns Green Edge Gardens in Amesville, read a statement for the entire group, in which he called the protesters “persons of reason who have done all that we could within the statute of the law in order to prevent the destruction of our natural, economic and social environment.”

Rondy said that an existing K&H well in Troy Township is currently accepting “2,100 barrels of toxic, radioactive waste” every day, and a recently permitted second K&H well nearby will allow for 4,000 more barrels a day. He added that despite citizen appeals, and resolutions by both Athens City Council and the Athens County Commission opposing the second well, the Ohio Department of Natural Resources “has proven to be unresponsive in addressing these community concerns,” and has “failed in its duty” to protect citizens and the state’s resources. It is this unresponsiveness, he suggested, that prompted the action Feb. 1.

“It is then, when the citizenry of Athens County, facing the real and permanent threat to our aquifer, our air, our earth – when the will of lawfully elected officials is ignored – that the acts of civil disobedience before the court today are not merely justified, but become obligatory,” he said.

In a statement of facts, defense attorney Todd Grace said the eight defendants, “after a great deal of thought, felt that they needed to make a statement” about the risks of injection wells.

ODNR officials have said the state’s regulations on oil and gas drilling and related activities are among the stricter ones in the country, and that the agency approved the permit for the second K&H well only after a comprehensive review, in which it found no scientific basis to deny it. They have also pointed out that both the U.S. Congress and the Ohio Legislature have indicated that they believe injections wells are the best way to handle wastewater from hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) operations for oil and gas.

By the luck of the draw, the protesters’ case was heard by Douglas Bennett, a retired Athens County Municipal judge who was known during his time on the bench for his sometimes acerbic comments on cases he was hearing. He lived up to his reputation Monday, at one point noting that “speaking as a taxpayer” he takes an interest in the protesters’ case, because of Ohio’s low severance tax rates on oil and gas. He also corrected defense attorney Todd Grace, who had just thanked Athens city Prosecutor Lisa Eliason for “understanding the situation,” and for “working with K&H” to help arrange the plea deal.

Bennett interrupted, to inform Grace that “K&H is not a party to the matter here,” which is between the defendants and the state of Ohio. Signing off on the plea bargain, Bennett praised the defendants for their respect for the law, adding, “Don’t we wish everyone had the same attitude.

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