Oil and Gas company threatens to sue speakers at Akron council meetings over fracking comments
The two retired, gray-haired men often speak during Akron City Council meetings about their favorite topic: fracking.
Their comments at a recent meeting, though, landed them in hot water with an oil and gas well company whose representatives were in the audience. The company’s attorney sent letters to the men warning that they had made untrue statements, and they could be sued if they do it again.
John Beaty, a retired pastor, and Steve Postma, a retired postal worker, were surprised — and somewhat frightened — when a FedEx driver delivered the cease-and-desist letters to the doorsteps of their Akron homes.
“When you get an oil and gas company after you, it gets your attention,” Beaty said on a recent morning as he stood near the oil and gas well in Goodyear Heights that was the subject of his comments that raised the ire of Discovery Oil and Gas.
The cease-and-desist letters have caused Beaty and Postma to watch what they say, adding phrases like “I believe” and “in my opinion,” but haven’t stopped either from commenting at the meetings. In fact, both again spoke against oil and gas wells at last week’s council meeting, three days after they received the letters from Pennsylvania-based Discovery.
“We’re fighting for the Constitution, for the environment and for citizens’ rights to live in a neighborhood not threatened by wells like this,” Beaty said, gesturing at the well on East Park Boulevard in Goodview Park. “We can’t stop fighting.”
The comments that Beaty and Postma made — and that prompted letters from Discovery — were in reference to legislation granting Discovery lease agreements for two new wells on city-owned land. The wells will be built on the east side of 25th Street Southwest, north of U.S. 224, and at 1023 W. Waterloo Road.
Council members voted 9-2 last week to approve the legislation for the new wells.
In his comments, Beaty said water and fumes from a waste pond that was at one time next to the East Park Avenue well killed surrounding trees. Postma questioned whether the drilling of the well damaged a nearby water line. Both men received a letter Sept. 25 from Vorys, Sater, Seymour and Pease, a Columbus law firm for Discovery, that said their statements are untrue.
“If you have any evidence that your statements are true, we would like to see that evidence,” the letters state. “Without proof of the truth of your statements, please do not repeat those statements or make other unsubstantiated claims.”
The letters warn that the men “may not lawfully slander or defame a business.”
“If this action is repeated, you will be legally liable for injunctive release and monetary damages, and Discovery will not hesitate to take such action to protect its reputation,” the nearly identical letters continue. “We sincerely hope this will not be necessary.”
Council members Tara Mosley-Samples and Mike Williams pointed to the letters — and the concerns raised by Beaty, Postma and other local activists about oil and gas wells — as the reason they voted against the legislation for the two new wells.
“When citizens come down and express themselves and they receive intimidation letters or threat letters, I have a legitimate concern about that,” Williams said. “We must protect the ability of every citizen to question their government.”
Williams said the fact that the state — and not municipalities — have the authority to regulate oil and gas wells didn’t influence his decision to withhold support on the wells.
“We have a serious erosion of home rule,” he said. “Whatever the state does, does not dictate my vote.”
Councilwoman Linda Omobien suggested that council members at their next retreat should discuss the issue of oil and gas wells and what the city is and isn’t able to do in relation to them.
Council President Mike Freeman said he supported the legislation for the wells because they are in mostly remote areas and aren’t the type of wells being dug in Carroll County that are 5,000 feet deep. He doesn’t think residents need to be concerned.
Freeman read the letter sent to Beaty and warned the audience members at the meeting that they should be careful what they say during the council’s public comment periods.
“I would remind each person who comes to speak to be cognizant of facts,” he said.
The city’s arborist examined the dead or dying trees around the East Park well and found that two ash trees were infected by the Emerald Ash Borer and that the roots of five oak trees likely were damaged by the digging of the well.
Pat D’Andrea, a former Akron council member and the local attorney for Discovery, said Discovery officials and attorneys weren’t happy when they heard Beaty and Postma’s comments. He said the well in question was inspected by state and city officials — as required — who found no issues with it.
If they had seen anything like the problems “suggested by Beaty and Postma, they would have shut this thing down,” he said.
At the city’s request, D’Andrea said Discovery agreed to leave several trees that are closest to the well even though the company knew that the roots of these trees could be damaged in the drilling process. He said the company is willing to cut down the oaks that apparently were damaged by the well.
D’Andrea hopes the letters to Postma and Beaty will prompt them to watch what they say during public meetings. He also wishes the men could learn more about oil and gas wells.
“What I would like to do is have them attend a workshop so they have a true understanding of all of the rules and regulations that affect the industry, how a well is dug and the protection in place, so when they choose to form opinions it is based on the evidence out there,” D’Andrea said.