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Legislators returned to the Statehouse this week for the start of lame duck activity. Committees commenced hearings on legislation aimed for passage prior to this General Assembly adjourning sine die at the end of the year. Bills that are not passed prior to adjournment must be reintroduced and begin the legislative process over again next year.

House Bill 490, the piece of Gov. Kasich’s Mid-Biennium Review legislation dealing with environmental issues, received two hearings this week. The House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee accepted a substitute version of House Bill 490 that added more than 50 pages to the bill and expanded the breadth of issues included in the proposal.

Telecomm

Substitute H.B. 490 now includes language to relieve providers of a continuing obligation to provide basic telephone service. In supporting the language, the telecomm industry asserts that the requirement to maintain the old copper wire system makes investing in new voice technologies impractical.

Consumer advocates, led by AARP, are concerned that older residents will be forced to more expensive choices and not have the ability to ensure basic phone service at a reasonable price. Some legislators are also concerned the investment in the new technology will happen in highly populated areas and leave rural portions of the state without access to low-priced service.

This addition into H.B. 490 is contentious with the administration, indicating that it is not satisfied with the current language and a veto is still an option if the provision is not corrected or removed from the bill entirely. As this issue has been in the works for nearly two years, there is every indication that the parties will be working on it until the very end of lame duck, if needed.

Oil and gas

The substitute bill also made changes to the oil and gas provisions included in the bill. The new version requires entities that store, process or dispose of brine, when filing for a permit with the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, to include a surety bond or other form of financial assurance, not to exceed $250,000, payable to the state as oblige. Additionally, it requires applicants for a brine storage permit to obtain liability insurance coverage in an amount established in rules adopted by the Chief of the Division of Oil and Gas, not to exceed $4,000,000.

The administration has been pushing legislators to increase regulations on brine transport as a result of multiple instances of illegal dumping in the state. Most notably, the incident in Youngstown where a brine disposal company owner instructed his employee to dump thousands of gallons of drilling waste into a storm drain that ran into a tributary of the Mahoning River.

While portions of Substitute H.B. 490 increase these regulations, the bill makes changes to numerous proposals included in the governor’s original legislation. The administration has also threatened to veto the bill if it determines the increased regulations on this industry are not strong enough.

Septic systems

In addition to the numerous other changes that have been incorporated into H.B. 490, amendments to the laws governing home septic systems have crept into the bill. Many parties involved with the debate over this topic had thought it had been put to bed when the Ohio Department of Health passed rules governing septic systems in June of 2014.

However, concerns raised by farmers and townships regarding how and when homeowners must abandon septic systems and tie in to public sewers have manifested themselves in the form of amendments to the bill. Among the provisions included, the substitute bill authorizes the owner of property that is served by a household sewage treatment system and that is reasonably accessible to a proposed private sewerage system to elect not to connect to the private system.

Concerns about how the changes will impact the ability to construct public and private sewer systems and what the implications are to public health are receiving considerable attention. It is not clear how the discussion will play out, but what is certain is that the changes will continue to draw extensive debate as the bill continues its journey through the legislative process.

Additional amendments to the legislation are due by Nov. 14, 2014. The committee is scheduled to vote the bill out by Nov. 18.

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