By Karl Henkel
Area residents, business representatives and legislators are warning the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency that new regulations would be detrimental to the Mahoning Valley economy.
“This is a matter of life and industrial death,” said state Rep. Tom Letson of Warren, D-64th, at an OEPA public hearing Thursday at Warren G. Harding High School.
The hearing, used to gather comments from area residents regarding a new Warren waste treatment plant permit that could spell doom for Patriot Water Treatment LLC and hamper other local businesses, became an open forum to lobby the OEPA to reconsider its proposal.
Patriot is the state’s lone brine treatment plant.
Brine is a byproduct of natural gas and oil drilling, sometimes known as fracking, a process in which water, chemicals and sand are blasted into rocks thousands of feet below the ground.
The OEPA last month issued a draft permit to Warren that, if enforced, would be the most stringent water-quality standards in the state, said Tom Angelo, city water pollution control director. The permit would take effect next month, if approved.
The OEPA wants Warren to comply with a standard of 622 milligrams per liter of total dissolved solids, or salts, well below the state standard of 1,500 milligrams per liter.
Warren currently disposes water into the Mahoning River at about 809 milligrams per liter.
The state does not regularly patrol TDS levels.
The standard is more of a recommendation, said Angelo, who described the result of the proposed permit as “cold and scary” for the region.
Angelo said a permit as restrictive as what the OEPA is proposing would hamper some local businesses, which contribute moderate levels of TDS to the water system.
General Motors Lordstown, Delphi Packard and the Association of Metropolitan Wastewater Agency all crafted letters to the OEPA opposing the proposed permit.
If Patriot closes, 20 employees would lose their jobs.
One of those employees is Luciano Vennitti, who was unemployed before he took a job at Patriot last year.
“They gave me more than a job,” he said. “They gave me my dignity back.”
It also could mean a wasted investment for Patriot, which spent $3 million on a state-of-the-art facility on Sferra Drive, according to company President Andy Blocksom.
The OEPA has tried to revoke and argue against a renewal of Patriot’s operational and brine permits — separate from Warren’s permit — but was shuttered by the Ohio Environmental Review Appeals Commission, which hears and resolves environmental appeals.
Since the denial, the OEPA has taken a different approach.
According to the Ohio Administrative Code, there is one avenue in which the OEPA — specifically Director Scott Nally — could revoke or decide not to renew the permits.
If water standards don’t meet the needs of nearby states, in this instance, Pennsylvania via the Mahoning River, then Nally has a legal leg to stand on.
Nally did not attend Thursday’s hearing, and the OEPA did not send a representative who could comment.
But many, including Angelo, said that formulating permits based on other state’s regulations will only hurt business in Ohio.
He said no other city in the state will be so restricted when it comes to TDS, and said other municipalities such as Elyria have received variances to exceed the state standard of 1,500 milligrams per liter for economic reasons.
Other residents came to Thursday’s meeting to voice their opinions about the environment and potential water contamination from the chemicals used in the natural gas and oil drilling process.
“My concern is that the water is becoming contaminated because of the chemicals in the fracking water,” said Carol Gottesman, a Liberty Township resident.
Blocksom says the brine that Patriot accepts is not the same as brine deposited into injection wells.
Brine’s chemical makeup — something Patriot has debated with state environmental regulators — differs depending on the water’s origin.
Most brine from fracking sites comes from deep beneath the Earth’s surface. It’s extremely salty — 300,000 milligrams of salt per liter, which is nearly 10 times the salinity of seawater.
That water, Blocksom says, is untreatable at his plant; he treats the small percentage of brine that is murky and contains dirt and metals. Its salinity level doesn’t exceed 50,000 milligrams per liter.