By David Skolnick
Supporters of a Youngstown anti-fracking charter amendment on the May 7 ballot say the proposal returns the rights to clean air, pure water and self-government to the people.
But opponents of the citizens-based initiative see the proposal quite differently.
First, they say, the proposal isn’t enforceable, something disputed by the Committee for the Proposed Amendment to the Charter of the City of Youngstown, the group backing the amendment.
“If it’s adopted, it will be part of the city law,” said James B. Callen, the group’s legal counsel. “If it’s passed, it’s the law. If someone believes it’s not enforceable, it can be challenged. This has been adopted around the country. If the citizens of Youngstown adopt the amendment, it’s the law for the city.”
The ballot language calls for Youngstown to circumvent the federal and state constitutions. No city charter amendment can legally do that, said Atty. Alan Wenger, a member of the Mahoning Valley Coalition for Job Growth and Investment, an organization opposed to the proposal.
Even so, if the issue passes, lawsuits would likely result to prove that it’s unenforceable and in turn that would discourage businesses from coming to the city, he said.
“It could be a circus for businesses,” said Wenger, who is also an attorney with Harrington, Hoppe & Mitchell and chairman of the law firm’s oil and gas practice group.
Wenger and other members of the coalition — which includes business, labor and political officials, nearly all of them not Youngstown residents — said the proposal is too vague.
For example, opponents say it could prohibit people from driving a car because one provision calls for the “right to breathe air untainted by toxins, carcinogens, particulates and other substances known to cause harm to health.”
“That’s just false,” Callen said. “It isn’t the intent and the language doesn’t say that.”
Opponents are misinterpreting the language, which is called the “Community Bill of Rights” on the ballot, Callen said.
“I think they’re providing the proverbial chamber of horrors to frighten people,” he said. “If passed, this would ban fracking in Youngstown and transferring gas” from the process. “That’s it. People are trying to use the fear of the loss of jobs to defeat the amendment. This proposal is an attempt to empower citizens to protect their environment.”
As for the amendment supporters’ intent, Wenger said he won’t second-guess it.
“But you have to go with the language in the document and the first portion doesn’t even mention fracking,” he said. “This is extremely broad in addressing anything we can think of in terms of chemicals, energy and water. If it’s only concerning fracking, they didn’t say so in this lengthy manifesto. The intent is one thing and the language is another. It goes far and beyond what these good-minded folks thought” they were doing.
The proposal would also make it unlawful for a company to “engage in the siting of production and delivery infrastructures, such as pipelines, processing facilities, compressors, or storage and transportation facilities supporting the extraction of shale gas or oil within the city of Youngstown.”
If the amendment is approved, it could mean V&M Star, which spent $1.1 billion on an expansion project in the city, couldn’t operate as it makes pipes for the gas and oil industry, Wenger said.
“Nobody’s against clean air and a clean environment,” added Mayor Charles Sammarone. “A lot of the things they’re concerned with should have been addressed by the state. The thing I object to 100 percent is any business dealing with the gas and oil industry can’t locate here. It’s not enforceable and the perception isn’t good for businesses wanting to locate and expand here. Take that out and I’ll support it.”
V&M wouldn’t be impacted by the amendment because the “pipelines” in the amendment are ones installed during the fracking process, and not pipes manufactured by the company, Callen said.
Wenger said he doesn’t see the difference.
The state Legislature approved laws nine years ago to take over control of gas and oil drilling from local governments.
Ohio Department of Natural Resources officials have repeatedly said the state has complete oversight when it comes to fracking, and nothing done by a community can change that.