By Laura Arenschield

Residents of three counties won't be voting this November on whether to allow fracking, based on a ruling Thursday by Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted.

In a letter to the boards of elections in Athens, Fulton and Medina counties, Husted said that the courts already had decided this issue, and that only the state has the authority to regulate oil and gas activity in Ohio.

All three counties had planned to have questions on their ballots this November asking residents whether to amend their county charters to ban fracking inside their borders.

The secretary of state's office received protests against those petitions, Husted said in his letter, which prompted him to rule on whether the measures could be allowed on the ballots.

Joanne Prisley, who asked Husted's office to review whether the Athens County measure was legal, said she did not believe a charter amendment was a good government decision.

"We don't want our water supply to be tainted, but they were trying to put a non-fracking law into charter government. You don't do it that way," Prisley said. "It would change the authority of the county commissioners."

Tish O'Dell, a Broadview Heights resident and Ohio organizer with the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund -- the organization behind the 160-some bans that have passed in the United States -- said Husted's decision is disheartening.

"If one secretary of state, who is obviously representing the best interests of the oil and gas industry, can keep the people's attempt to alter and reform their government off the ballot, then exactly how are people ever supposed to alter their government?" O'Dell said.

Such charter amendments have become a tool for groups worried about fracking's environmental or health repercussions to keep oil and gas activity out of their localities.

A group in Columbus had pushed for a similar measure, collecting 13,461 signatures, but the Columbus City Council voted in July that not enough were valid for the measure to be on the November ballot.

Similar bills have passed in Athens city, Broadview Heights in Cuyahoga County and Oberlin in Lorain County.

Two oil and gas companies sued Broadview Heights over the bill of rights that passed there in 2012, and in March, a Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court judge ruled that only the state Department of Natural Resources can say where oil and gas wells can go.

People who have pushed for such ballot measures primarily say they don't trust the state to keep them safe from fracking, a process by which drillers use water, sand and chemicals to fracture -- " frack" -- shale deep underground to free oil and gas trapped there.

Fracking chemicals include some that can cause cancer. The waste also can include radioactive material.

Almost 25 million barrels of wastewater were pumped into about 200 injection wells in Ohio last year, according to state records.

Athens County took the third-highest amount of fracking wastewater in the state last year, though a new injection well, approved in March by the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, could make Athens the county that takes the most fracking waste.

(c)2015 The Columbus Dispatch