ODNR pays for public records lawsuit

The Ohio Department of Natural Resources is pointing to a clerical error as the reason for the most recent public records complaint filed against the agency-the third to result in a monetary settlement since 2012. Meanwhile, the Columbus-based environmental attorney behind the suits said the records obtained after the most recent settlement will enable him to revisit a dismissed lawsuit against the agency which challenges the permitting of an injection well in Athens County.

ODNR settled a records complaint in June, handing over the records and $1,000 in damages to the Athens County Fracking Action Network (ACFAN) after failing to respond to a records request made by the group’s attorney in January.

The documents at the heart of the recent public records complaint deal with the permitting of a second injection well in Troy Township, Athens County, said attorney Richard Sahli, who represented ACFAN in the lawsuit and public records complaint.

“They were very important documents,” said Sahli. “Now that we have these records, we can more clearly identify the process used to permit.”

Sahli filed a formal records request with the Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR) for the documents Jan. 16 and filed action against the state agency March 19 when he had still not received the records.

According to public records law, public agencies must respond to records requests within a “reasonable” time frame.

ODNR spokesman Mark Bruce said Wednesday that agency policy requires a response to a records request within 30 days and updates about the progress of the request every 14 days thereafter.

“This particular incident was a clerical error. We respond immediately to records request. We send an acknowledgment,” he said.

ODNR receives a staggering amount of public records requests, ranging from routine requests requiring a single page document to more voluminous requests that might include hundreds of emails being sent, said Bruce.

The department averages 3,000 public records request a week, he said.

As the department works to keep up with those requests, it continually reviews and updates its public records request policy. For example, the policy requiring an ODNR response within 30 days of a request was established this year, said Bruce.

The suit and record complaint is the third Sahli has filed and collected monetary damages on since 2012.

According to The Columbus Dispatch, ODNR handed over records and $9,000 to the Sierra Club in 2012 to end a suit seeking records about drilling proposals in state parks.

It paid another $2,500 to the Sierra Club earlier this year for a lapsed records request regarding illegal fracking-waste disposal.

Sahli said the timing of the most recent suit settlement and records receipt were “interesting.” The requested records were received within days of the Ohio Oil and Gas Commission dismissing ACFAN’s appeal of an ODNR decision to grant a permit to K&H Partners for a second fracking-waste injection well in Troy Township-a case which would have benefited from the requested records, said Sahli.

The case was dismissed because it failed to take into consideration ODNR’s new two-permit policy for wells, said Sahli. But, he added, he had no knowledge of the new permitting process.

Now he has an additional public records request pending to learn about the history of the dual permitting process and what it entails, he said.

In the meantime, Sahli is using the information contained in the most recent documents to revisit ACFAN’s fight against the second well in Troy Township.

He has filed a motion to reconsider with the Ohio Oil and Gas Commission. He also plans to file an appeal of its decision this week, which would be heard in Franklin County Common Pleas Court.

Bruce said no specific plans to further change the agency’s public records policy is in the works, but reiterated that the department is always looking at ways to improve efficiency.

While Bruce could not say that more employees are being hired to deal with records, more overall employees are being hired in certain busy divisions of the agency.

“The Division of Oil and Gas for example is more active right now. As that division is beefing up its staff, there are people who will be trained-not necessarily just to deal with records requests-but to help to deal with public records,” he said.