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Ohio as a Sacrifice Zone

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A “sacrifice zone” is a region, state, or community that is thrown under the bus of progress, for the greater good of those driving the bus. The term first appeared during the energy crisis of the 1970s, to describe areas sacrificed to meet the energy needs of the country. Examples of classic sacrifice zones were the uranium mining areas of the West, especially in Navajo lands, and the coal fields of Appalachia. Energy development in these cases provided jobs for historically impoverished regions, at the cost of their health, and the health of their land, air, and water. Other costs included one-industry economies that kept the communities underdeveloped, while the wealth they produced for the country was shipped off to the executives, managers, and stockholders of companies that owned the mines and mills.

The State of Ohio is a sacrifice zone, where the environment and all of us who depend on a healthy environment, are sacrificed for the profit and prosperity of the oil and gas industry, big utilities, the chemical industry, and agribusiness. This has been the case since settlement and the industrial revolution which created a state where every head is bowed, and every knee bent before the god of profit.

The result is one of the most polluted states in the nation. In Cleveland we had the fire on the Cuyahoga River in June of 1969. This occurred at about the same time that Lake Erie was labeled a biologically dead body of water. Cleveland had some of the worst air pollution in the state. Pictures from Cleveland in the 1960s show a smoky sky, next to an orange lake. Cleveland has one of the worst records for child lead poisoning in the country. By 1910 the state had virtually no woodlands left. Both underground coal mining and strip mining had created barren moonscapes, and streams that ran orange with acid pollution. Today, Lake Erie is not dead, but is instead an environmental invalid, beset by the effects of plastic pollution, invasive aquatic species, and the impact of climate change. The Ohio River is one of the most polluted major rivers in the United States. Beset by the rise in ocean levels in the Gulf Coast, there is a new initiative to relocate petrochemical refineries from Louisiana to the tri-state valley of Ohio, Kentucky and West Virginia, an area already known as a “cancer alley.”

The legacies of Ohio’s reckless industrial development continue to haunt the state. But new threats are compounding the old disasters. Fracking has revolutionized rural Ohio, particularly in the south-eastern quarter of the state, and not in a positive way. Southeastern Ohio continues to suffer under what is called in economics literature, the resource curse, a term used to describe countries and regions of the world dominated by extractive industries, where the resources and wealth are looted for the profit of distant corporations, leaving behind poverty, and environmental devastation. Such areas export not only resources and wealth, but also people who leave to find opportunities in the cities that house the corporations that looted their homes. The classic example of this is how Appalachia was depopulated after World War II after the automation of the coal industry. Former miners headed for the booming factories of the north which were built from the profits of King Coal.

Behind these facts is a politics in Ohio best exemplified by the escalating scandals over HB 6 that have sent two prominent Republicans to federal prison, have four former officers of First Energy facing trial for felonies, and drove two of those indicted in the scandal to commit suicide. The moral squalor of Capitol Square in Columbus is protected by Republican gerrymandering and campaign finance supremacy.

Corruption is an environmental issue, and nowhere is this made clearer than the issue of fracking. Starting in 2004 legislation was passed that created a regulatory regime of impunity for the oil and gas industry. Local governments lost the right to regulate fracking. Regulation was monopolized by state bureaucracies that have long been notorious for being in the pocket of industry. Special care was shown in stacking the administrations of these agencies with former oil and gas executives. The spigots of campaign cash became gushers for those state legislators who helped pass the legislation that made Ohio, especially Southeast Ohio, into one huge gas “play” as natural gas fields are called. The legislature not only bent over backwards to do industry’s bidding, but also declared war on industry critics with a raft of anti-protest legislation aimed at fighting a non-existent threat of “environmental terrorism” hyped by the occupation of Standing Rock to block the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL), and the campaign against the Keystone XL pipeline to move tar sands crude to refineries in Texas.

While politicians owned by the oil and gas industry fretted over non-existent sabotage by fictional eco-terrorists, real environmental terrorism has been unleashed on the state by the fracking industry. The industry has a horrible accident record of leaking drill sites and pipelines, and drill pad fires and explosions. According to the watchdog group FracTracker Alliance, there have been fourteen hundred fracking accidents from 2018 to 2023 in Ohio. These accidents range from fires and explosions, to leaks from drilling sites, pipelines, and injection wells that dispose of fracking wastewater that is toxic and radioactive. Worst of all, according to the Plain Dealer, and the Columbus Dispatch, the Ohio Oil and Gas Commission knew for years that injection wells were leaking into aquifers and did nothing, even when inspectors from its parent agency ― the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, warned them about what was going on. The opponents of the fracking blitzkrieg take no satisfaction in the fact that everything they warned about over the past twenty years of fracking in Ohio has come to pass.

Nothing is sacred to state government when it comes to the lust for fracking profits. They are even willing to frack Ohio’s state parks, forests, and nature preserves if that makes their buddies in the oil and gas industry happy. Some lobbyists really earned their commissions in 2023 when they slipped a rider into a bill regulating the commerce in baby chickens — the now infamous “chicken bill” ― that opened Ohio’s public lands to the frackers. It was the icing on the fracking cake and proof that Ohio is a sacrifice zone. A state whose people and places are expendable before the whims and needs of one of the most rapacious industries in human history.

May 5, 2024

Randy’s Rants is a Cleveland newsletter featuring the type of essays, commentaries, and opinion pieces that Randy Cunningham has become both noted and infamous for over the years. Responses, denunciations, and compliments may be sent to randino49@gmail.com. If you wish to share these rants, do so with my blessing, just give me credit.


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