COLUMBUS - Federal environmental regulators are investigating a January chemical emergency at an Ohio oil well and asking why an inventory of the facility's chemicals wasn't available to local authorities, according to a letter released Wednesday by a coalition of activists.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency confirmed its investigation of the Jan. 16 incident near St. Marys in Auglaize County in an April 26 letter to the coalition. The alliance comprising the Center for Health, Environment & Justice, the Sierra Club, ProgressOhio and others said it received the letter May 31.
The groups had asked the federal EPA to review the St. Marys oil leak as well as alleged Clean Water Act violations in a separate Youngstown case to see if the Ohio Department of Natural Resources' oil and gas regulatory program is working effectively. The coalition proposes that the federal government take back its oversight responsibilities in the state.
Its complaint alleged that Ohio has been out of compliance with the federal Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act, or EPCRA, under which chemical inventories are to be publicly available, since 2001. In that year, state lawmakers passed a law "that essentially exempts the oil and gas industry operating in this state from requirements (of the federal law)," the activists said.
They pointed to the emergency near St. Marys to make their case. They said that when concentrated chemical odors were detected at the facility, local emergency responders were unable to access required chemical data that was supposed to be on file. The local newspaper was told the information was filed with the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, the groups said.
In his letter, U.S. EPA Superfund Division Director Richard Karl said that while an "alternate compliance method appears to be considered compliance" with state law, the Ohio law "does not designate (or attempt to designate) alternate compliance methods for the federal EPCRA law."
"Simply stated, the (state law) does not supersede (the federal one)," Karl wrote.
An official speaking for the Ohio Department of Natural Resources and the Ohio EPA said the impact of the federal government's finding is still being measured.
"The state is reviewing U.S. EPA's determination and we will soon be discussing this with the companies affected to ensure they are in compliance with their reporting obligations under state and federal law," spokesman Chris Abbruzzesse said in an email.
Teresa Mills, the nonprofit executive who authored the federal complaint, said she was surprised it took so long for the discrepancy to come to light - and activists will keep a close eye on what happens.
"There are two options: The state of Ohio can correct the situation, or we can sue them," she said.
The coalition had earlier raised issues over oil and gas oversight in Ohio in light of recent federal indictments of Youngstown-area businessman Ben Lupo and an employee of his Hardrock Excavating LLC alleging that Lupo instructed the worker to illegally dump oil and gas wastes into a storm drain. The two have pleaded not guilty.
D&L Energy, where Lupo was a former president and shareholder, has been stripped of its operating permits as a result of that incident and recently failed in its attempt to challenge that action. The company is likely to appeal. The state also shut down the St. Marys well while the cause and extent of the January leak is investigated.
Activists question whether a state agency funded by the industry can impartially conduct the investigation ordered by Gov. John Kasich into whether potentially lax regulations led to the dumping incident alleged by federal prosecutors.