MWCD stands by decision to not release names

The Muskingum Watershed Conservancy District continues to stand by its decision to not release the names and addresses of individuals and businesses who rent lakeside properties from the agency, in spite of a public records suit filed by an anti-fracking group against the MWCD last month.

The writ of mandamus lawsuit was filed with the 5th District Court of Appeals on June 17 by Toledo attorney Terry Lodge on behalf of Toledo area resident Lea Harper, 59, co-founder, with husband Steve Jantso, 61, of the Southeast Ohio Alliance to Save Our Water.

“She and her attorney had requested earlier this year a list and contact information on all of the conservancy district’s lessees,” said MWCD spokesman Darrin Lautenschleger. “That involves 1,200 cottage-site lessees. We support the Public Records Act, but we don’t believe this is public information. We only use it for administration, to manage our contracts with the lessees.”

He explained that the MWCD leases property it owns along eight lakes in the district to private citizens and some businesses. He said the lessees may own cottages or other structures on the property, but the conservancy district retains ownership of the land.

Harper said Tuesday that she and her husband are currently owners of property in Senecaville near Seneca Lake, which is located in Guernsey and Noble counties and is the largest reservoir in the MWCD’s jurisdiction. She noted they do not lease their property from the MWCD.

She said the list of names and addresses of the MWCD lessees would allow her to contact those people with information about the conservancy district’s involvement with the state’s growing shale oil and gas industry.

Harper said that includes selling water and leasing land to oil and gas companies for horizontal hydraulic fracturing operations near and beneath reservoirs like Seneca Lake.

“We’ve commissioned scientific studies related to these practices and submitted that information to the MWCD, but they seem to believe the fracking industry’s spin and discredit our information,” she said.

The studies, performed for the Southeast Ohio Alliance to Save Our Water and Fresh Water Accountability Project Ohio in Grand Rapids, Ohio, highlight concerns for radioactive pollution of water from shale drilling operations as well as drinking water contamination and public health issues.

“We feel they’re deliberately withholding this information from the public,” Harper said, adding her concern for the impact of fracking on water resources for future generations.

She also believes selling water to the oil and gas companies for fracking operations represents a conflict of interest for the MWCD, which is charged with protecting and maintaining the area’s water resources.

Lautenschleger said the conservancy district board has passed a short-term water policy that allows reservoir water to be sold to some hydraulic fracturing companies that meet certain parameters.

“We don’t sell water to the entire industry,” he said, but noted proceeds from water sales is used on surface water projects, and revenue from the cottage leases goes to improve conservancy district facilities and provide more public access to those areas.

There has been no court action since the mandamus suit was filed, but Lautenschleger said the MWCD’s counsel, New Philadelphia attorney Jim Pringle, is currently preparing a response to the suit. He said as of Tuesday that document had not been filed with the 5th District Court.

Lautenschleger added that the MWCD had responded to several previous public information requests from Harper that had been submitted since last year.

“Since the first quarter of 2012 the conservancy district has provided 4,000 pages of documents requested by Ms. Harper,” he said.