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Drill at the 'Mill? 

Gas drilling in a nature preserve? It could happen.

Gas concerns have been scouring the state for property owners willing to sell rights to the natural gas stored a mile below ground, in what is known as the Marcellus Shale. And among those who might be interested is the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, which owns the 2,200-acre Powdermill Nature Reserve in Westmoreland County.

Carnegie Museums marketing director Kitty Julian confirms that gas-drillers have approached the Carnegie about the 54-year-old reserve. The Carnegie hasn't fielded a formal lease offer yet, let alone signed one, she says. Still, the cultural organization is discussing internally how to proceed.

"Is it possible for natural-gas development to happen in an environmentally safe manner? We don't know the answer to that yet," Julian says. "Our role right now is to try to figure out what information do we need for ourselves and our neighbors."

The fact that the Carnegie would even consider opening Powdermill to drilling, though, puts the debate over drilling in a sharper light.

In times that are tight financially, even for institutions like the Carnegie, drilling can promise big money.

"We all need more money in nonprofits," says Tom Sokolowski, who as director of The Andy Warhol Museum works with the Carnegie's board of trustees. The potential revenue from signing a drilling lease is "phenomenal," he says -- "millions and millions" over the life of the wells, the Carnegie has been told.

But drilling carries environmental risks. "We are very seriously interested in the sustainability and green aspects," Sokolowski says. Among Carnegie officials, "People are divided."

According to its website, the reserve, located just south of Ligonier, comprises "woodlands, streams, open fields, ponds and thickets." Founded as the Carnegie's field-research station -- with a long-running bird-banding program and more -- it's also home to nature hikes, butterfly counts and summer camps for children.

Powdermill, adds the website, "has served as a refuge for many plants and animals now becoming increasingly rare in our region as their habitats are destroyed." And in an area rife with acid-mine drainage, its namesake mountain-spring-fed Powdermill Run is "one of the very few unpolluted streams available for ongoing studies of aquatic life."

Gas drilling has been implicated in water and air pollution in states from Pennsylvania to Wyoming. Under particular scrutiny is drilling in shale formations like the Marcellus. There, operations inject millions of gallons of water and chemicals underground, at high pressure, to release the shale gas, a process called hydrofracturing. Recovered "frack" fluid contains known carcinogens like benzene and arsenic.

Concern over such pollutants is at a peak following the recent Clearfield County blowout that sent a million gallons of frack fluid into the air. And thanks in part to the HBO documentary Gasland, more attention is being paid to the danger that drilling may contaminate groundwater with methane.

Pennsylvania has long leased state parkland for gas extraction. But the notion of gas-drilling at Powdermill surprises some environmental advocates.

"We pretty firmly believe that there really is no place for these kind of extractive activities on nature preserves, even in state parks," says Conrad Dan Volz, a University of Pittsburgh researcher who's been leading efforts to track the effects of shale-gas drilling. As someone who's frequently hiked in Powdermill, he adds, "I can't conceive of them [drilling]" there.

Drilling damages the environment in multiple ways. Well-pads occupy several acres: Just by building them and the necessary access roads, Volz says, "you're changing the character of that land ... at least for a generation." Other possible impacts on sensitive wildlife habitat include: toxic fumes that emanate from the ponds of recovered drilling fluid; the likelihood of spills; noise from construction, drilling and compressor stations; and the daunting possibility of explosions, like the Clearfield County incident.

Yet pressure on landowners to allow drilling is great. Throughout Pennsylvania, property owners are signing contracts that promise bonuses of thousands of dollars an acre, plus potentially decades of royalties. Volz himself turned down a $500,000 signing bonus on his 100 acres in West Deer. "I'm not gonna do it, but ... most of my neighbors are," he says.

"If you own property, you will be approached by someone eventually," says the Carnegie's Julian.

The Carnegie, as a venerable institution, arguably sets an example for the community. Should Powdermill become a drilling site, it's easy to imagine the gas industry touting that as proof the industry's methods are environmentally sound.

Indeed, Julian says the Carnegie is researching whether there's a "best-practices" approach to gas drilling. "There's a lot of opportunity for organizations to try to better understand the impacts and share that with people, whether or not drilling proceeds on your [own] property," she says. "If there is going to be drilling -- if, and that's a really big question -- what would the requirements be? ... Those are the most important issues."

Critics like Volz doubt drilling can be done safely, at least under current state regulations and levels of oversight. Many observers are also concerned about environmental uncertainties, such as how far frack fluid can migrate underground.

Powdermill's neighbors include the Mountain Watershed Association. The group works with landowners in the Indian Creek watershed, which shares a ridge with Powerdermill's watershed. Gas-drilling "has the potential for being the most nightmarish, horrible situation," says MWA director Beverly Braverman. "But the problem is, we don't know."

Julian says the Carnegie considers itself a conservation organization. But at least one other large regional landowner with a conservation mission doesn't regard drilling as an option.

"I don't think it's something we have made serious consideration of at all," says Genny McIntyre, vice president for institutional advancement at the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy. The nonprofit owns 11,200 acres in the region, almost half of it in Bear Run Nature Preserve, near Ohiopyle. The Conservancy has been approached by leasing agents, McIntyre says. But, she notes, "Our entire organization is devoted to conserving land and water in the region."

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