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Friday, May 2, 2014

County Councilors — A Few of Them — Hear Dissenting Voices on Fracking in Deer Lakes Park

Posted By on Fri, May 2, 2014 at 1:48 PM

In organizing what was billed as an “informational meeting” last night, Allegheny County Councilor Sue Means hoped fellow councilors would hear some alternative voices on the prospect of drilling for gas beneath Deer Lakes Park.

Such speakers visited council chambers in the Allegheny County Courthouse, many arguing that council lacked sufficient information to consider approving a proposed drilling lease. But even with a vote on the lease set for next Tuesday, only a handful of councilors were present to hear them.

The meeting was attended by just six councilors, only three of whom — Means, Jan Rea and William Robinson — stayed for even half the three-plus-hour meeting.

Means, a Bethel Park Republican, had expressed disappointment that a meeting of the parks committee earlier this week was devoted mostly to presentations by representatives of Range Resources, the company with plans to drill beneath the 1,180-acre park.

The lease now before council was announced in March by County Executive Rich Fitzgerald. The lease, which promises a $4.7 million bonus payment to the county and the creation of a $3 million park-improvement fund, prohibits surface drilling in the park in favor of horizontal drilling from wellpads outside the park’s borders.

The lease and has since been the subject of numerous public meetings, but drilling opponents feel their position has been given short shrift.

That wasn’t the case last night, at a meeting attended by about 40 members of the public, most of them opposed to drilling beneath the park.

Two of the speakers were John M. Smith and Jonathan M. Kamin. The two were co-counsel for the plaintiffs when the state Supreme Court last year scrapped major provisions of Act 13, the controversial state law governing gas-drilling in the Marcellus Shale. Hydrofracturing, or fracking, involves injecting high volumes of chemical-laced water underground under high pressure to crack the shale and release the gas.

Smith and Kamin argued that Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille’s opinion, which relied heavily on the previously little-heeded Environmental Rights Amendment to the state constitution, gives councilors an obligation as stewards of public land that doesn’t fall to private landowners considering a drilling lease. The amendment guarantees the commonwealth’s people a right to clean air and clean water — the very things drilling opponents say fracking puts at risk.

Legal experts differ on whether Castille’s opinion — which was joined by only two other justices — sets a strong precedent. But Smith and Kamin said the December ruling requires councilors to engage in further study to assess the risks drilling poses.

Kamin noted numerous uncertainties about the drilling process, including the chemicals to be used and the exact location of the drilling sites. “I don’t even know that we know enough to give a coherent answer” about whether drilling is safe, he said.

Smith noted that the county has not, for instance, done hydro-geological studies to assess the impacts of potential leaks or spills on drilling sites.

Smith also said he believes that the proposed lease — touted by Fitzgerald as highly protective of the park — is actually less protective than state law on some water-quality issues. He said, for instance, that lease language prohibiting drilling operations from “materially and adversely affect[ing] the surface waters” on leased land is weaker than state law.

In their talk, Smith and Kamin also referenced a presentation earlier in the evening by Duquesne University researcher John F. Stolz. Stolz said his research in Southwestern Pennsylvania has linked drilling operations to contaminated drinking water, with contaminants including barium, strontium and bromides. But he said some of the contamination might be due to “legacy issues” — the fact that drilling often takes places in areas where the geology has already been comprised by decades-old coal-mining or gas-drilling.

Stolz noted that Deer Lakes Park is located in West Deer and Frazer townships, which together are almost completely undermined.

Other speakers who cited the lack of knowledge of fracking's health effects included Bruce Pitt, a professor in the University of Pittsburgh’s Graduate School of Public Health; Michael McCawley, chair of the environmental-health department at West Virginia University; and Mitchell J. Small, who chairs the National Research Council Committee on Risk Management and Governance Issues for Shale Gas Development.

At least some of the councilors who heard the testimony expressed concern about the lease, which would be the first to permit gas-drilling in an Allegheny County public park.

Robinson, for instance, noted Kamin and Smith's constitutional argument. “Even my colleagues who believe this [drilling] is the right thing to do are leaving themselves vulnerable,” said Robinson. He also chastised council leadership and Fitzgerald, who he said had “prevented us from being informed” on the issue.

Click here to see the video of the meeting.

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