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Wastewater company sues man for biblical anti-fracking billboard; defenders cite free speech

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COLUMBUS, Ohio - An Ohio man who uses a biblical reference and a statement against "poisoned waters" on billboards opposing wells for disposal of gas-drilling wastewater is fighting a legal threat from the Texas well owner on free-speech grounds.

Austin, Texas-based Buckeye Brine alleges in a July lawsuit that the billboards paid for by Michael Boals, of Coshocton in eastern Ohio, contain false and defamatory attacks against its two wells, which dispose of contaminated wastewater from oil and gas drilling.

The complaint by the company and Rodney Adams, who owns the land and operates the well site, contends the wells are safe, legal and meet all state safety standards. The parties object to statements on two billboards along U.S. Route 36, including one that "DEATH may come."

"The accusation that the wells will cause 'DEATH' is a baseless and malicious attempt to damage the reputations of the plaintiffs," according to the complaint. "The billboards are also defamatory because they state or imply that Mr. Adams and Buckeye Brine are causing 'poisoned waters' to enter the drinking water supply."

Shale oil and gas drilling employing hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, produces millions of gallons of chemical-laced wastewater. The liquid, called brine, is a mix of chemicals, saltwater, naturally occurring radioactive material and mud.

It's considered unsafe for ground water and aquifers, so Ohio regulations require waste liquid to be contained and injected deep underground. Ohio has recorded no aquifer contamination, but as the state grapples with some 16 million gallons of the wastewater a year, it's seen earthquakes linked to injection wells and a Youngstown-area businessman indicted in a federal dumping case.

Boals, a 55-year-old timber harvester, refuses to pull his billboards, which he said cost him more than $1,000.

He said the complaint misrepresents his statements, one of which is that injection wells "pump POISONED WATERS under the feet of America's Citizens." The second sign quotes prophecy from Revelation — on men dying from waters "made bitter."

"I think a lot of people hear the word 'injection well' and they don't realize they inject wastewater into the ground," he said. "I said the poisoned waters travel under the feet of all the people in the area. That's a true statement. 'Bitter' speaks about something not desirable, not something you'd ever want to drink."

After a cease-and-desist letter failed to get Boals to pull the signs, the legal fight escalated. Buckeye Brine directed its appeal for relief to the sign owner, and Boals enlisted the legal help of Fair Shake Environmental Legal Services.

Megan Lovett, an attorney at the Pittsburgh-based non-profit, said Boals' signs represent protected speech, especially in a rural, hilly region where billboards are one of the more reliable forms of mass communication.

"You can't defame someone with an opinion in Ohio," she said. "You can't control an idea. The way we control ideas is in the marketplace of ideas, not in a court."

Lovett also argues that oil and gas drilling, particularly fracking, can rightly be considered to "destroy" and "poison" water, as the billboards contend.

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