Ohio billboards that cited Bible in attacking fracking wastewater are coming down

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FILE - In this Sunday, Aug. 17, 2014 file photo provided by Robert A. Franco, a billboard in Coshocton, Ohio opposes deep-injection wells. Michael Boals, an Ohio man who uses a biblical reference and a statement against "poisoned waters" on the billboards near two wells for disposal of gas-drilling wastewater, says the messages are coming down. Boals told The Associated Press the billboards’ owners are ending his lease agreement Tuesday, Sept. 9. He said a July lawsuit contending the signs contain false and defamatory attacks prompted them to end his three-month verbal agreement after two months. (AP Photo/Robert A. Franco, File)

COLUMBUS, Ohio — An Ohio man who uses a biblical reference and a statement against "poisoned waters" in billboards opposing the disposal of gas-drilling wastewater says the messages will come down Tuesday.

Michael Boals, of Coshocton east of Columbus, told The Associated Press the billboards' owners were ending his three-month verbal agreement after two months unless he agreed to change the text.

Well-owner Buckeye Brine, of Austin, Texas, filed a lawsuit in July over the ads, contending the signs contain false and defamatory attacks.

The company and the well's local operator, Rodney Adams, objected to statements on the two billboards along U.S. Route 36, including a sign that quoted says "DEATH may come." They defend the wells as safe, legal and compliant with all state regulations.

Buckeye Brine spokeswoman Jen Detwiler said the company took its concerns both to Boals and to sign-owner Robert Schlabach and his wife. "I can't speak to the billboard owner's motivations," she said in an email.

Messages were left Monday for the Schlabachs and their attorney.

Boals, a 55-year-old timber harvester, has refused to remove the messages on free speech grounds. He said they cost him more than $1,000 and contained no false information.

One billboard states 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."

He said he has no beef with the Schlabachs, who say he can keep renting the billboards if he changes the content — something he doesn't want to do.

"I'm the messenger," he said. "I'm the one they (Buckeye Brine) have their dispute with, and that's how it should have stayed."

A Pittsburgh-based nonprofit, Fair Shake Environmental Legal Services, has been representing Boals and was bracing to defend the billboards, which represent a prominent source of communication in a rural area with limited cellphone and media coverage.

On Tuesday, they asked that the lawsuit be dismissed on grounds Buckeye Brine's complaint was "fatally defective."

"In sum, the complaint demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of First Amendment law, as well as the more protective speech law under the Ohio State Constitution," according to the motion.

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 groundwater 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 wastewater dumping case.

The state announced on Friday that it was halting operations at a deep injection site in northeast Ohio after finding possible evidence it caused a 2.1-magnitude earthquake on Aug. 31. An investigation is ongoing.

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