23 November 2014

Small Grassroots Organization Wins Lawsuit

The FreshWater Accountability Project (FWAP) prevailed in court last week in a lawsuit initiated under Ohio’s Open Records Act to obtain the addresses of those who lease residential and commercial property from the Muskingum Watershed Conservancy District (MWCD). FWAP sought the records as public information in order to directly communicate with people whose property rights and values can be affected by the Muskingum District's huge lease deals for oil and gas fracking on public lands around the District's reservoirs. The MWCD denied the public records and lost the issue in court. The Fifth District Court of Appeals courts fined the MWCD and awarded attorney fees to FWAP as plaintiff.

“To force us to file a lawsuit to obtain records is just another example of how the MWCD believes it does not have to adhere to the principles of democracy and accountability as a public agency receiving tax dollars,” stated Lea Harper, co-founder and Managing Director of FWAP. “The MWCD receives a large amount of its revenue from people like me as a property tax payer within the district. This political subdivision in the State of Ohio also receives huge amounts of rental income from those who have houses on reservoirs that are also being leased for fracking. The MWCD used this address list to contact their lessees to promote their schemes to sell reservoir water and lease public land for horizontal hydraulic fracturing (fracking). It is unjust that the MWCD could use these addresses to provide information to downplay the threats to property values, health and environment while obstructing our ability to keep property owners within the district informed of the industry’s downsides. I witnessed how the MWCD portrays the fracking industry as harmless by attending an information meeting they sponsored along with fracking industry drillers and promoters like Energy in Depth for district residents. People have a right to hear the rest of the story the MWCD may not want them to know.”

"Many people have invested in vacation, retirement and year-round residences in the belief that a governmental agency with a mission of natural resource conservation would not abandon its responsibility to the public,” stated Terry Lodge, attorney for FWAP. “Not only is there taxation without representation in the MWCD, there is fracking without environmental or human health impact assessments. Many people have no idea of the subsurface rights and even surface rights that the MWCD plans to lease with property around Piedmont Lake, the fourth of the MWCD reservoirs to be leased for fracking along with Leesville, Clendening and Seneca. We suspect Tappan is next. We intend to notify MWCD lessees of what can happen that can directly affect them and their property values as well as peaceful enjoyment of property through this reckless collusion with an abnormally dangerous industry. It is important that the MWCD is not allowed to actively prevent property owners within the district from organizing and communicating with one another as important stakeholders."

“We do not appreciate how the MWCD tries to operate beyond the law. After putting us through all the hoops, we believe the MWCD furnished us with the addresses in advance of the court’s ruling in order to avoid paying our legal fees,” stated Lea Harper. “After uselessly stringing us out in court, we are glad to finally receive the court’s ruling, although it shouldn’t have to be this difficult and expensive to do so. Those are my tax dollars they used against me to fight in court.”

“I think many people stopped trying to hold the MWCD accountable and gave up when over 5,000 property owners filed affidavits to oppose the property tax assessment and lost in appeal seven years ago,” continued Lea Harper. “This small win shows the MWCD cannot continue to operate indefinitely without accountability, checks and balances and transparency. I hope this is just the beginning of a reckoning and rebalance of power that needs to take place.”

Those who would like more information are invited to contact FreshWater Accountability Project at www.FWAP.org. Those who have questions about the leasing of Piedmont Reservoir for fracking can contact the MWCD.org, FWAP.org or attend the MWCD Board Meeting at 9 am at the Kent State University Tuscarawas branch, 330 University Drive, NE, New Philadelphia, Ohio.