Niles votes to rescind fracking ban

NILES – Less than a month after its passage, council voted unanimously Wednesday to rescind the “community bill of rights,” a controversial measure opposing hydraulic fracturing within city limits.

Passionate residents on both sides of the argument crowded into Niles city council chambers to make one final plea before the 7-0 vote was tallied, which was passed in its first reading.

Dave Bishoff of Oak Forest Drive spoke in support of rescinding the anti-fracking legislation, citing possible economic gains available to Niles residents as a result of the oil and gas industry. He attended an informational roundtable Sept. 9 hosted by council on the subject.

“I came away impressed that there are regulations in place and steps being taken that will protect both the citizens and the environment,” Bishoff told the packed chamber. “I agree that a compromise can be reached where the neighborhoods can be protected, but we can benefit from the economic prosperity of this.”

Others, like John Williams, a member of FrackFree America and a Niles resident, supported the community bill of rights by saying, just prior to the legislation being rescinded, he will push to have it brought to the voters.

“I was told we need 620 signatures to get this put on the spring ballot,” Williams said. “If council tonight rescinds this great ordinance, I will get those signatures and place this on the spring ballot.”

Williams expressed disappointment following the vote, ensuring council he will continue to fight against hydraulic fracturing.

“I’m disappointed for the City of Niles, not my group,” Williams said. “My group has nothing to do with it. I live in this city. I just watched a city that was a safe place to live turn into a nightmare.”

The ban was passed in its first reading by a 7-0 vote at the Aug. 21 council meeting, largely due to fears by several city officials that oil and gas companies were buying land in residential neighborhoods which it planned to use for deep wells.

However, experts in the oil and gas industry have assured city officials they will not drill in residential neighborhoods, as there is not enough room to accommodate the five acres necessary for a safe drill.

“You are not going to see shale development in these areas,” Shawn Bennett, field director for Energy in Depth, said. “I applaud the city council for listening to the thoughts of those in the industry and rescinding this ill advised ordinance.”

Hydraulic fracturing, commonly known as fracking, is a process of accessing petroleum-locked shale thousands of feet below the earths surface. The process involves pumping millions of gallons of water, chemicals and sand into the rocks thousands of feet down in order to free the petroleum products trapped there.

Councilman Steve Papalas pushed for the bill of rights’ passage in August. After voting to rescind the ordinance on Wednesday, he apologized to fellow councilmembers for pushing them into a decision before proper research was done.

“I feel mostly responsible for the ordinance that we’ve been hearing about for the last couple of weeks,” Papalas said. “I called it the most important legislation that night. I owe all you an apology for putting you through this, as well as the mayor. I’m glad that we corrected it. I can assure you we won’t bring any more ordinances out the night of the meeting at the very last moment.

“I’ve heard that from some of you with some constructive criticism and I can assure you it won’t happen again,” Papalas said.

Councilman Edward McCormick described Wednesday’s vote as the most difficult in his career on council.

“I intend to support the repeal of this with one provision,” McCormick said. “If further legislation might be needed in the future, I’m more than willing to spearhead that or look into it.”

While the bill of rights was repealed, council also unanimously voted to adopt a resolution stating the position of the city concerning shale gas and oil extraction. In that resolution, council re-affirmed its stance against drilling in residential areas.

“The purpose of this resolution is to say we support commerce with the Shale oil and gas industry, but we want to remind the state we don’t want those wells in our neighborhoods,” Papalas said. “This also clarifies our position with our residents in this community.”

Mayor Ralph A. Infante, who originally supported the bill of rights, said he changed his mind after hearing that it may prevent Niles from selling water and electricity to oil and gas companies.

“We’ve been selling water to the well drillers at the Lordstown well and the one in Trumbull County,” Infante said. “That could have stopped us from selling water and we’ve made some large amounts of money for the city by doing that.”

Still, Infante asserted his support of a reveal had a caveat.

“I still have a concern about residential drilling,” Infante said. “Hopefully that never comes about because I don’t want to see it in a residential area. That was my other big concern.

“They assured us that there probably isn’t enough acreage to be able to do this. We’re going to call ODNR and their department that handles the well drilling. We’ll stay on top of them and monitor,” he continued.