Guest Blog by FSELS Legal Intern Christina Pollonais: The Ohio Verified Complaint Process: An Easy, Cost-Effective Way to Seek Results

Have you ever been faced with a situation in which there was an alleged violation of law regarding air pollution, water pollution, solid waste, infectious waste, hazardous waste, construction and demolition debris, public water supply, or cessation of chemical operations? Or has there ever been a circumstance where you suspected that a company has failed to meet a requirement of a license, permit, variance or plan approval relating to any of the previously listed violations?

If so, then most likely you have called your local or state authorities to report. However, waiting on the agency to respond or to take action, if ever, can be a frustrating process that citizens often have little control over. Well, Ohio law provides a way in which you can ease this frustration. You can file a verified complaint directly to the Ohio EPA. This process provides for formal written and appealable agency response to your complaint. If you file proper a verified complaint to the Ohio EPA, they have a duty to respond and act on this complaint within a period of 180 days. By taking advantage of this unique process, you can better assure answers to the numerous questions or problems you may be facing within your local community or home when an environmental violation occurs.

Ohio’s rules for filing verified complaints can be found under Ohio Revised Code §3745.08. Once an individual demonstrates that they have been adversely affected by an environmental issue, they can file a verified complaint. If the director determines a violation is evident from the verified complaint that you have filed, the director may issue an order to the violator to correct the problem or request that the Attorney General's Office begin legal proceedings.

It is important to note that if for any reason the verified complaint is reviewed and dismissed, the dismissal is considered a final decision of the Director of the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Any action taken by the Director in relationship to a verified complaint is considered appealable to the Ohio Environmental Review Appeals Commission (ERAC). Specifically, if the complainant is adversely affected by the decision, he or she can file a Notice of Appeal with ERAC in order to appeal a final action if the Ohio EPA proceeding or decision was arbitrary, capricious or unlawful.

There are four issues that a verified complaint must fully address to ensure that a verified complaint is filed properly. These include:

1)         The person submitting the complaint must demonstrate “standing”

a.         To address standing the complainant must: identify the complainant, and how he/she is personally affected by the violation that has occurred, will occur or is occurring;

b.         Also, the complainant must describe his or her knowledge of the violation.

                                                                                             i.         Standing cannot be based upon something the complainant simply read.

2)        The complainant must provide a detailed background of the situation

a.         The complainant must give as many detailed facts as possible. This is because often times a verified complaint can be dismissed where the Ohio EPA cannot gather sufficient information about the violation. Photographic evidence can be very useful.

3)         The complainant must provide a list of the alleged violations citing the specific laws or regulations that were disregarded.

a.         It may be helpful to have attorney review your complaint prior to submitting it. This way you can identify as many laws and regulations that were believed to be violated, and the Ohio EPA will have a better idea of what the specific problem is.

4)        The complainant must provide verification in the form of a sworn and notarized affidavit by the complainant, or his/her agent or attorney.

a.         To notarize prevents fraud and ensures the appropriate people execute documents freely. Institutions rely upon notaries so they may have full faith in important documents. These materials serve as a means of verifying the transaction so others may rely upon it. When you see a notary’s seal on a document, it means a trusted notary public represents that it is authentic and properly executed.

b.         The verified complaint must be in writing and include the words “Verified Complaint” at     the top.

Be sure to review your verified complaint several times before submitting it! It is imperative to understand that a verified complaint may be of ease and cost efficient, BUT it can be easily dismissed or overlooked if it isn’t executed properly. The Director of the Ohio EPA makes the decision to either dismiss the complaint or take action.   A properly executed verified complaint can be a powerful tool for landowners who suspect environmental violations have occurred on their property or in their community.

Where’s the ‘Free’ in the Freedom of Information Act? FOIA Requests, Fee Waivers, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

FOIA is intended to “ensure an informed citizenry, vital to the functioning of a democratic society, needed to check against corruption and to hold the governors accountable to the governed.”[1]  Indeed, information held by government agencies often helps individuals and communities understand the very environment that surrounds them.  However, federal agencies can request high fees for this information, often making these documents out of reach for many requesters.  This can create an access-to-justice issue: yes, the information is available, but only to those who can afford it.

There are ways in which these fees can be appealed—but first, a short primer on FOIA requests.

"Science as my Guide"

"Science as my Guide"

I remember it distinctly and as if the world were about to change. President Obama had taken office – the excitement was palpable – and I was about to teach my first semester as a Clinical Assistant Professor at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law in their wonderful Environmental Law Clinic. On the same day that I turned 30, Lisa P. Jackson was confirmed as the President’s first U.S. EPA Administrator. Her message to the U.S. Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works was simple and impactful: “If I am confirmed, I will administer with science as my guide.”

Oil and Gas Development: Stories from SE Ohio

Winter clouds gathered outside the cafeteria of River High School in Hannibal, Ohio, promising high winds and black ice…but the folks inside were worried about threats a little closer to home.

On January 14, residents from southeast Ohio met with representatives from local, state and federal government to discuss their environmental concerns. The event, sponsored by the Ohio Environmental Council, gave citizens the chance to describe their experiences with oil, gas and other development. While the issues were universal—protecting land, water, air—the stories were highly individual:

·      The local farmer—having lost access to his leased grazing land because of a newly placed pipeline—decided to cash in his retirement and build a new home far away from development…only to have a natural gas compressor station built nearby. “It sounds like nine train engines running day and night,” he says.

·      The family who lived through a nearby well pad fire in June 2014, raised a host of questions about their subsequent health issues—and claim they’ve received precious few answers.

·      The new resident who came from bruising battles with drilling companies in the western United States, only to find similar issues brewing here. “I don’t want to sound defeatist,” he said. “I guess I’m here to warn you.”

While billed as a “listening session” for elected officials, few government representatives could offer more than sincere expressions of concern. Not surprising, really; environmental issues are often complicated and difficult to solve.

But Fair Shake Supervising Attorney James Yskamp had a simple reminder for those in attendance: “You have rights,” Yskamp said. “You have rights to be involved in the process, and you have rights if you feel you’ve been harmed.”

Yskamp and Resident Attorney Megan Hunter outlined some of the issues that were voiced during the forum, and noted where and how affected residents could seek answers and possibly redress.

Such rights, Yskamp said, are invaluable tools toward meaningful engagement.

”You have options,” he said, “and you need to know that.”

Fair Shake & Community Groups File Protest Letter to Protect Ohio’s Only National Forest from Oil and Gas Development

Oil and gas development on federal land is primarily governed by the Mineral Leasing Act of 1920, as amended (30 U.S.C. § 181 et seq.). This law established the Secretary of the Interior’s authority to lease public lands for the development of mineral resources, including oil and gas. While the numbers of leases issued and acres of federal land leased by the Bureau of Land Management (“BLM”) for oil and gas development has steadily and significantly decreased over the past eighteen years, the number producing leases on federal lands had gradually risen from under 19,000 in 1988 to almost 24,000 in 2015.[1] The number of producing acres on federal lands has been rising since 1993 and was almost 13 million in 2015.[2]

The National Environmental Policy Act (“NEPA”) requires federal agencies, including BLM, to consider the environmental impact of their actions.[3] NEPA is triggered at multiple stages of the leasing and development process, and is a powerful tool for ensuring that adequate information is available to make reasoned policy decisions regarding mineral development on public lands and the potential impacts to the environment. Pursuant to NEPA, agencies are required to take a “hard look” at every significant environmental impact of a proposed agency action, as well as the impacts of any alternatives available.[4]

On November 14, 2016, Fair Shake Environmental Legal Services filed a protest letter on behalf of FreshWater Accountability Project and 26 other organizations to oppose the opening of the Wayne National Forest to oil and gas development. The letter protests the federal Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM’s) proposed December 13, 2016, oil and gas lease sale of 33 parcels of publicly owned lands.

The proposed lease sale would allow unconventional oil and gas development and hydraulic fracturing (commonly known as “fracking”) on approximately 1,600 acres of Ohio’s only national forest. Fair Shake argues that the lease sale would violate substantive and procedural federal law designed to protect human health and the environment.  Specifically, the protest argues that BLM is required under the National Environmental Policy Act to prepare a full Environmental Impact Statement.  This would include a more thorough environmental analysis than the Environmental Assessment (EA) conducted by BLM.  The groups also argued the EA itself was inadequate because it relied on outdated information and did not fully assess many of the foreseeable environmental impacts of the lease sale, including the impacts to air quality, water resources, public health, and endangered species.  The protest letter also raises concerns regarding climate change and environmental justice for local communities surrounding the proposed extraction sites. The letter also states BLM must consider other alternatives to the lease sale, such as keeping federal hydrocarbons in the ground or prohibiting hydraulic fracturing on leased parcels.

Fair Shake filed the protest letter—pursuant to 43 C.F.R. § 3120.1-3—on behalf of FreshWater Accountability Project, Athens County Fracking Action Network, Buckeye Forest Council, Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, Appalachian Mountain Advocates, Torch CAN DO, West Virginia Highlands Conservancy, Mountain Lakes Preservation Alliance, Radioactive Waste Alert, Columbus Community Bill of Rights, Guernsey County Citizens’ Support on Drilling Issues, Frack Free Lake County, Sustainable Medina County, Ohio Allies, Frack Free Geauga, Network for Oil & Gas Accountability & Protection, Concerned Citizens Ohio, Friends for Environmental Justice, FaCT-Faith Communities Together for a Sustainable Future, Northwest Ohio Alliance to Stop Fracking, The Committee for the Youngstown Community Bill of Rights, Ohio Community Rights Network, Concerned Citizens of New Concord, Ohio River Citizens’ Alliance, Ashtabula County Water Watch, and Headwaters Defense.

You can read the full protest letter here.

[1] Bureau of Land Management, Summary Of Onshore Oil & Gas Statistics, available at https://www.blm.gov/style/medialib/blm/wo/MINERALS__REALTY__AND_RESOURCE_PROTECTION_/energy/oil___gas_statistics/data_sets.Par.69959.File.dat/summary.pdf.

[2] Id.

[3] 42 U.S.C.A. § 4321.

[4] See 42 U.S.C.A. § 4332(C).

 

 

Legal Counseling Under Conditions of Uncertainty

Legal Counseling Under Conditions of Uncertainty

For our clients, in almost every instance we work with clients who are confronted with a situation where they, often for the first time, are realizing that their own government will not protect them. It doesn't take much for the implicit trust that we have in our institutions to turn into a sense of panic and hopelessness. Many, if not all, of our clients come to us in that shocked state. We knew long before the election that the belief in our nation's systems working for our clients had faded. And that's what is important: that we acknowledge and accept that our system of justice, our system of opportunity, and our system of advocacy have to work for everyone. Fair Shake is about tilting those systems toward working for all in our everyday work and in our model of the practice of law.

Small-Scale Conservation: Protecting Privately-Owned Forestland for Future Generations

Small-Scale Conservation: Protecting Privately-Owned Forestland for Future Generations

Private landowners hold more than 70 percent of Pennsylvania's forests and woodlots. For many such landowners, especially those without children to leave their land to in their wills, it may seem like they have no other option but to expose their land to the possibility of development when they are gone. However, many options exist to preserve privately owned land in its present state for the foreseeable future. This post intends to serve as a summary of the wide variety of methods open to a landowner looking to do so, and will discuss transfer to a land trust, conservation easements, deed restrictions, and government programs.

Pets in Hot Cars: Know Your Rights by Adam Cetra, FSELS Legal Intern

Pets in Hot Cars: Know Your Rights by Adam Cetra, FSELS Legal Intern

Many of us have been there before. You pull into a parking spot on a hot summer day, only to find a dog left unattended in the car next to you. You may be worried about what could happen if you simply move on with your day. According to the Humane Society, when it is 72 degrees Fahrenheit outside, the temperature inside a vehicle can heat up to 116 degrees Fahrenheit within an hour. When it is 80 degrees Fahrenheit outside, the temperature inside your car can heat up to 99 degrees Fahrenheit within 10 minutes. Further, rolling down the windows has been shown to have little effect on the temperature inside a car. Unlike humans, our pets do not have the ability to sweat to reduce their body temperatures. Being left in a vehicle can lead to a “painful, horrible death.” For example, once a dog’s body temperature exceeds 105 or 106 degrees, their cells start dying, which can lead to seizures or even mass organ failure and death.

Knowing the dangers to the animal, you may even be wondering how people can still do this after we see the same stories every year. As you sit there wanting to help, you may also be left to wonder what you can do in the moment, legally speaking. As with many legal issues, the answer is dependent upon the state in which you live.

Defending Your Environment Against Fracking Wastewater Disposal Injection: Citizen Suits under the Safe Drinking Water Act

Defending Your Environment Against Fracking Wastewater Disposal Injection: Citizen Suits under the Safe Drinking Water Act

Two recent studies by the U.S. Geological Survey, Duke University, and the University of Missouri have demonstrated that fracking wastewater injection disposal sites can lead to contamination of surface waters in nearby streams.  Of particular concern, the studies found endocrine-disrupting activity in the streams at levels high enough to lead to adverse health effects in aquatic life. Where potential or actual public underground drinking water sources are affected, citizens suits under the Safe Drinking Water Act may provide a way for people to defend their environment from contamination by wastewater injection.

Amendments to PA Alternative Energy Regulations, Now Under Review

Amendments to PA Alternative Energy Regulations, Now Under Review

Next Thursday, May 19, Pennsylvania’s Independent Regulatory Review Commission (the “IRRC”) will consider significant amendments to the State’s Alternative Energy Portfolio Standards Act of 2004 (the “Act”). The amendments largely pertain to net metering, interconnection, and portfolio standard compliance provisions, as described in a final rulemaking issued by the PA Public Utility Commission (the “Commission”) on February 11, 2016 (passed by a vote of 3-2). The Commission primarily justifies these revisions as required to ensure default electric service rates are provided at the least cost to customers. These same changes, however, are opposed by renewable energy industry supporters on the basis they are unjustified by data and likely to decrease renewable energy use across the State. 

Dealing with Old Oil and Gas Wells

Dealing with Old Oil and Gas Wells

In the past decade, a lot of attention has been paid to modern hydraulically-fractured and horizontally drilled oil and gas wells that have increasingly populated Pennsylvania and Ohio. It can be easy to forget that this is not the first (or even second) round of energetic well drilling in the area. Many people deal with old wells on their property, some of which were drilled 50 or 60 years ago. Old wells - and old pipes, fittings, valves, tanks, and other infrastructure pieces - can be unreliable or even outright dangerous. Wells that provide "sour gas" - natural gas which is naturally rich in hydrogen sulfide, a chemical which corrodes metal, causes respiratory problems, blindness and death - can cause serious public health crises if they are not properly maintained. Even properly operating wells can go dry or nearly dry - leaving you with noisy and intrusive oil and gas equipment on your property with little to no royalties for the inconvenience.

Webinar: Food Waste Problems and Solutions

Webinar: Food Waste Problems and Solutions

This presentation on Food Waste was part of our 2015 Community Fair and is an introduction to the issue of food waste. Even as people continue to struggle with food insecurity, massive amounts of food are wasted during production, distribution, and by consumers. This presentation examines these issues and takes a look at some creative solutions to the problem of food waste at local, regional, and national levels. 

Estate Planning is for Everyone

Estate Planning is for Everyone

There is a pervasive myth in America that individualized estate planning is only available to the very wealthy. For some, the message has even been that these services are only appropriate for the rich. Still others may know that individual planning is available, but believe that they and their loved-ones cannot benefit. They believe that because they do not have sufficient assets, nothing can be done.

Webinar: Legal Tools for Building the Sharing Economy

This presentation, recorded as part of Fair Shake’s 2015 Community Fair, provides an introduction to my practice as a sharing economy lawyer. The sharing economy is a general trend towards sustainable economic and community development in a way that facilitates community ownership, localized production, cooperation, small-scale enterprise, and the regeneration of economic and natural abundance.

What It Means To Work at the Intersection of Reproductive and Environmental Justice

Looking at environmental concerns through a reproductive justice lens (and looking at reproductive concerns through an environmental justice lens) can help attorneys articulate needs that might otherwise go unaddressed and unnoticed in conversations about legal concerns and potentially available remedies. Recent statements from the International Federation of Gynecology and Obstetrics on environmental justice, concerns surrounding the spread of Zika virus, and the impact of black lung on Appalachian families all demonstrate the unique way our environment impacts our reproductive health and the impact that has on our ability to plan and provide for our families.  These scenarios demonstrate the way an individual’s ability to exercise their reproductive rights and gain access to reproductive healthcare can contribute to how successfully that individual navigates the environmental concerns they may be facing.  They also demonstrates the way economic and social factors impact an individual’s exposure to harm and access to justice.  

A fellow attorney once told me that what I am saying boils down to “nothing happens in a vacuum.”  However, I think working at the intersection of environmental and reproductive justice means much more than that.  As an attorney committed to serving modest-means clients and an attorney committed to addressing the environmental legal concerns of women and families in particular, using these lenses to tackle a legal problem brings unique counseling and fact-gathering skills and provides an opportunity for novel approaches to legal action.

Landowners: Can I use renewable energy and maintain Clean and Green status?

Landowners: Can I use renewable energy and maintain Clean and Green status?

To counter the market forces favoring development, the Pennsylvania Farmland and Forest Land Assessment Act, often referred to as “Clean and Green” or Act 319, provides preferential tax assessments for qualifying farmland and forestland. The question is: Can a landowner maintain Clean and Green status while also implementing a renewable energy project on the property? 

GASP v. Shenango: Setting Precedent on What Is Jurisdictional in Citizen Suits

GASP v. Shenango: Setting Precedent on What Is Jurisdictional in Citizen Suits

I have to stretch my memory to recall a time when I have heard the word “jurisdiction” used outside of the realm of legal beagles. The best I can do is to think of various times when a police or fire vehicle appears in a completely different city or town than the one displayed on the side of the vehicle. When that happens, we’ll often say: “I wonder what she’s doing outside of her jurisdiction?” As a general matter, most people seem to understand, then, that jurisdiction refers to the area where that governmental actor has power to do something.

Time to Test Your Water? Lead in Ohio’s Drinking Water, and Monitoring Requirements Under the Lead and Copper Rule

Over the weekend, the American Red Cross and other volunteers distributed water to the residents of Sebring, Ohio following concerns about elevated lead levels in the Sebring Public Water System.  In response to the concern, Sebring’s schools cancelled classes on Friday and held a lead screening clinic for children under 6 and pregnant and breastfeeding women on Sunday.  Pregnant and breastfeeding women, infants, and children receiving water from the Sebring Public Water system remain advised to use bottled water for cooking, drinking, and formula preparation, and the Mahoning County Emergency Management Agency continues to distribute water through the Sebring Community Center.

The Business of Social Enterprise: Intro to B Corporations

More than ever, for-profit businesses today are striving to highlight their ethical sourcing, environmental consciousness, and positive influence on society. For consumers, the question of whether they are supporting a true social enterprise or being misled by savvy marketing is sometimes difficult to answer. But, it is a question that businesses can take steps to address upfront. One way businesses do this is through Benefit Corporation designation. For clarity, there are two different types of B Corp designation. The first is a third party certification, similar to Fair Trade. The second is a state-created business entity that requires meeting environmental and social standards not required of a typical corporation. Both types of Benefit Corporation are explored further below.

Lead and Lead Laws in Ohio: A Brief Survey of Responsibilities

Lately we have heard a great deal about the lead poisoning of children in Flint, Michigan, which may have some wondering about lead in their own communities.  According to Ohio’s Department of Health, lead poisoning is the greatest environmental threat to children in Ohio, and in the past 15 years 40,000 children have suffered lead poisoning in Cuyahoga County alone.