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Proposal to drill beneath Deer Lakes Park raises questions of safety, government procedure 

"We need a lot more research into the long-term health risks before we start drilling under our public parks."

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   The county was approached this summer by Huntley and Huntley, an engineering firm that consults with the drilling industry, about drilling beneath the park. The county issued its request for proposals in September. Fitzgerald won't release details about the number of proposals received or the companies involved. However, according to published reports quoting county-council members, the only proposal submitted came from Huntley and Huntley — which already has drilling rights on private land around the park — and its partner, energy company Range Resources.

Despite public opposition — which Fitzgerald ascribes to a "vocal minority" — the county executive says allowing drilling beneath Deer Lakes makes sense because drilling is already taking place nearby. Fitzgerald says Range Resources has leases on about 58,000 acres around the park, and that there are currently 19 active wells. Approving fracking under the park won't bring well pads any closer to its boundaries, he says.

"This process is happening anyway, regardless of whether we participate in it or not," Fitzgerald says. "Council can vote 15-0 against this. I can say no to this, but the fact is, it's going to happen anyway."

Fitzgerald also says that if the county does sign a lease, it can demand that the terms include provisions to ensure additional safety and environmental protections. And the revenue from drilling, he says, will benefit residents with "money that we can use to fix up and maintain our county parks."

Some opponents, though, worry that Fitzgerald is already undermining county council's ability to weigh in on the matter.

"My main issue here is the process and procedure that is being used," says County Councilor William Robinson. "I believe the administration is out of bounds and has gone outside their authority in pursuing this drilling idea on county parks." Fitzgerald, he says, should "let council play its rightful role."

County council must approve proposed uses for county land. Yet Robinson says he's been stymied in efforts to obtain proposed agreements with Huntley and Range. An informal request for documents was ignored, he says: He's awaiting a response to a follow-up Right-to-Know records request.

Fitzgerald maintains that council doesn't have a role in negotiating the deal. Under the terms of the original request for proposals, the executive's office has until Nov. 30 to work out terms with the driller. The contract would then be submitted for council's approval; if council doesn't act by year's end, the measure would have to be reintroduced in 2014.

"I also invited Councilor Robinson to a meeting where I gave some information about this to council and he decided not to come. But we want to get suggestions and feedback from council if they have any," says Fitzgerald.

Daly Danko's three-year hold on park drilling, meanwhile, has received no public feedback at all: The bill has been languishing in council's Government Reform Committee since she first proposed it in September, because Council President Charles Martoni, also the committee chair, has not brought it forward for debate.

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