Ohio Senate Delays Decision on Fracking, Agriculture Bill

Elizabeth Dobbins, News Editor

Ohio legislators are making a final push this month to move several bills through the Senate, including laws that could improve support for free clinics and weaken fracking regulation.

House Bill 320, which would lower the barriers to volunteering at free clinics, passed almost unanimously through the House in February and was approved by the Senate earlier this month.

The bill extends Ohio’s Good Samaritan Law, a law that allows volunteer physicians to treat uninsured patients by protecting these volunteers from medical malpractice. H.B. 320 expands this protection to physicians treating patients on Medicaid; as a result, Medicaid patients can now receive care at free clinics.

According to Paul Baumgartner, executive director of the Lorain County Free Clinic, this bill will help make care more accessible if passed.

“Despite the fact that we’ve seen Medicaid expansion in the state of Ohio along with the benefits of the Affordable Care Act with a certain population, there are certainly going to be quite a few individuals that are going to go without affordable and timely access to care,” said Baumgartner. “And anytime you can reduce barriers to care by getting patients to a provider in a more timely fashion, or to get individuals to volunteer like at free clinics, it serves the population or community that much better.”

Physicians from throughout the county volunteer at the four locations of the Lorain County Free Clinic, including one at Mercy Allen Hospital in Oberlin. According to Baumgartner, creating awareness of both health care options and volunteer opportunities is a key mission of LCFC and an important step in making health care as accessible as possible.

“In the past, it’s always been an ongoing challenge to create awareness of need, and once you do that, it’s a full-time job to create that awareness but also to mobilize volunteers, and we have been quite successful in doing so for our 28-year history. Some periods it’s been more difficult than others.”

In an effort to bring attention and support to free clinics, H.B. 320 also includes language instituting a Free Clinic Appreciation Month.

While the Senate passed H.B. 320 28–3, other bills, such as H.B. 490, were met with more resistance. H.B. 490 is a large, highly amended bill proposing laws concerning telephone lines, agriculture and fracking.

In a statement to the Senate on Tuesday, Ohio Senate President Keith Faber announced that the bill will not be voted on this year.

“After consulting with my colleagues, I’ve decided the Senate will not act on House Bill 490 during this legislative session,” said Faber. “We simply need more time to consider the substantive issues contained in the 264-page document, and time is not our ally in a lame duck session. Our colleagues in the House had the benefit of eight months to consider the bill between its introduction and passage; we’ve had it in the Senate for less than three weeks. … We are absolutely committed to renewing the debate on these important issues at the outset of the new General Assembly in January.”

The bill proposes combining state- owned land to allow for horizontal fracking in a process known as unitization. Unitization, legal under a rarely cited state law, has been used to force unwilling land- owners to allow the extraction of oil and gas from their land.

According to Tom Stewart, executive vice president of the Ohio Oil and Gas Association and proponent of the unitization language in H.B. 490, failing to approve this part of the bill will have a negative effect on Ohio’s fracking industry.

Additionally, H.B. 490 proposed that water withdrawals from Lake Erie be used for fracking. Opponents are concerned that this water withdrawal could potentially increase the concentration of pollutants in the Lake Erie watershed and infringe upon the Great Lakes Compact.

David Orr, special assistant to the president of Oberlin College on sustainability and the environment, strongly opposes this measure, stating it could contribute to fresh water contamination.

“Water will be the first major crisis of the climate-changed world, and it’s insane to draw down large volumes of water out of Lake Erie and contaminate other water, ground water and even surface water,” said Orr.

The bill also proposed a change in the requirements for reporting fracking chemicals. Under this legislation, the Ohio Department of Natural Resources would be required to compile a database of “appropriate” information regarding chemical usage that could be made available to planning committees and emergency workers. This department would have the power to decide whether or not to make this information public.

The ODNR has asserted that the creation of a database would improve transparency and efficiency, but opponents have raised concerns about slow response times from the ODNR in the past and feel that this information should be available directly from the company in the event of an emergency.

During this lame duck session, the Senate has also passed legislation to increase children’s access to vaccinations, a bill to make adoptions more affordable and a state-wide income tax reform.