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We can’t trust ODNR!

Yes, those are strong words. Sadly, they are true.

The most recent example came just two weeks ago during ODNR’s Open House at Millersport Elementary School. Senior policy advisor Mark Anthony outlined two missions for the meeting. ODNR, he said, wants to provide residents with the information now known and to get feedback from residents. “We want to be candid with you,” Anthony explained. “You can be part of the planning.”

A few minutes later lakefront residents were shocked to learn that ODNR will be erecting a six-foot high chain link fence along the entire 4.1 mile earthen dam before construction starts late this fall. The fence will be erected on the lake-side of the sidewalk that runs on top of most of the earthen dam. On the portions of the West Bank without a sidewalk, the fence will be placed on the state side of the property boundary. The fence will remain in place until construction of the new dam is completed which is currently projected to be the spring of 2019. That’s not a typo; it will be in place for a very long 3.5+ years.

The fence was justified as a federal OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) requirement. We’re starting to see a pattern here. Come up with a onerous plan (like lowering the water level to a hereto unseen ‘winter pool’) and blame it on the feds.

ODNR ‘bought’ their desired assessment from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Both agencies have stone-walled multiple public record requests (ODNR) and Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests (USACE) from local organizations, residents and media trying to learn who knew what and when. The records requests have focused on the contractually required draft report and discussions about it. ODNR claims that the report is subject to attorney-client privilege even though USACE is providing an engineering assessment, not a legal one. USACE has been equally inventive, claiming at one time that the draft report was ‘classified.’

Thankfully, ODNR has not ‘bought’ OSHA. After failing to find any specific OSHA requirements for construction fencing, our suspicions were confirmed with a call to OSHA’s Columbus area office. There a long-time OSHA staff person told The Beacon, “I don’t know where they are getting that (the six-foot high fence requirement).” When told that the property is owned by the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, she added that OSHA has no jurisdiction over ODNR since it is a state agency. Just to make sure, our contact checked with an OSHA safety specialist who confirmed there are no specific fence requirements. Her final advice was, “Ask them for the specific regulation.” Consider it asked.

Some readers may be asking, “What’s the big deal?” First and foremost, we have a taxpayer-supported state agency continuing to be fast and loose with the truth. It’s been going on for more than a year. ODNR Director James Zehringer pledged, in an August 13, 2014, letter to Buckeye Lake Dam stakeholders, “We will make time to seek residents’ input and work through these issues with the community in an open and transparent process before any final decision are made.” We all know that his pledge was worthless. ODNR simply “announces” decisions; there is NO discussion or transparency.

A six-foot chain link fence also raises critical safety issues. Millersport Fire Chief Bob Price has already raised his concerns with ODNR. His department is the first responder to most lake emergencies across the entire lake. The department’s procedure is get victims to the closest shore with immediate road access which includes all of the 4.1-mile dam. A six-foot high chain link fence is a substantial barrier to quickly transferring a victim to a medic. The fence is also a barrier to fighting a structure fire from the lake or using lake water to supplement hydrant capacity. Price told The Beacon last week that ODNR may be willing to place gates every 100 yards or so to make access through the fence easier.

In some areas, the fence will be installed within a few feet of lakeside homes. One of ODNR’s scary scenarios earlier this year raised the possibility of a gas leak in a home and a subsequent explosion as causing the dam to fail. The new fence will make it harder for residents to escape a gas leak or fire whether the dam is at risk or not. It will also be very difficult for residents to help anyone on the lake side of the fence, whether they are in trouble on the water, in the mud or on the new stability berm.

Presidential candidate and sometimes governor John Kasich and ODNR have consistently claimed that safety is paramount. The years-long installation of the fence compromises safety on both sides of the fence and is incompatible with their safety-first claims.

ODNR’s fence will require a metal post every eight feet or so. That’s about 2,700 new 12-18 inch deep holes in the dam. Based on ODNR’s scary assessment, that’s 2,700 new potential pathways for seepage. Suddenly, ODNR isn’t so concerned about poking holes in the dam. If the dam’s failure is so imminent to warrant the devastation currently being waged on our local economy, then ODNR should not be poking 2,700 new holes in it.

And finally there is the economic impact. Installation of the 4.1-mile fence will be very costly, likely approaching one million dollars. That’s a lot of money for something that compromises public safety and the integrity of the existing dam.

The biggest impact will be on property values. Homes along the dam will be very difficult to sell at anything except fire sale prices with a six-foot high chain link fence within a few feet, obscuring lake views. Not everyone can wait three to four years to sell a home to fund assisted living/nursing care or settle an estate.

So what’s the reason for ODNR’s six-foot fence? We know it’s NOT an OSHA requirement as claimed. It compromises safety and dam integrity. However, it is a very strong symbol of who is in charge. That’s been ODNR’s objective for more than a year. ODNR is making all the decisions now and announces them on their own timetable. It took them nearly six months to make a decision on the docks, yet dock owners have just 60 days to comply. The fence also allows ODNR to take back property that they willfully left to adjacent property owners to maintain for years.

There are options to the six-foot fence. First, ODNR itself uses four-feet high plastic fencing around its dredge material relocation areas (DMRA). If that’s enough to keep curious kids out of these areas, it is sufficient for the active construction areas along the dam. Secondly, there is the option to use temporary fencing along the active construction areas. It is commonly used around construction sites and is far less costly. It moves with the work and doesn’t create a 3-4 year safety hazard and eyesore. It also doesn’t require holes in the dam and is easier to breach in an emergency.

ODNR has an opportunity to put some substance behind their claims that they are concerned about residents and their safety. They have an opportunity to start rebuilding the trust that they destroyed early this year. We aren’t holding our breath.

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