Protesters say get the frack out of Allegheny County parks | Pittsburgh City Paper

Protesters say get the frack out of Allegheny County parks

Eight years after drilling operations began at Deer Lakes Park near Tarentum, environmental advocates are calling on Allegheny County Council to ban any similar ventures in public parks.

A crowd of protesters gathered on the steps of the City-County Building in Downtown Pittsburgh ahead of a June 9 public hearing to rally support for a council bill that would prohibit hydraulic fracturing on any of the county’s eight other sites.

“Fracking in public parks is a very real near-term threat,” urged resident John Detwiler during the rally.

The crowd was spurred on by a slate of Green Party and Protect our Parks speakers and by the folksy vocals of retired mill worker-turned-songwriter Mike Stout, whose lyrics denounce corporatism, greed, and fracking in remorseless succession.

Several speakers highlighted adverse health impacts associated with the fracking process, while others argued the promises of good jobs and cheap energy don’t hold up.

“We aren’t getting fracked to create energy, we are getting fracked to create plastic,” said Anais Peterson.

Hydraulic fracturing involves drilling deep underground and flushing out natural gas using a chemical mixture known as fracking fluid. Most of the health concerns associated with the process stem from the possibility of creating leaks that contaminate surrounding water sources.

The bill’s sponsor, Allegheny County Councilmember at-large Bethany Hallam (D-Ross), said taking action on this item has been a personal priority since she won her seat in 2019. Hallam told Pittsburgh City Paper that she anticipates County Executive Rich Fitzgerald will veto the bill if it clears council and is unsure whether she can summon the additional two votes needed to resurrect it.

“If you can’t stand up for parks as the one safe green space that we have, what are you going to stand up for?” Hallam said of her colleagues on council who do not support the measure.

In a press statement following the hearing, Fitzgerald confirmed that he opposes the legislation and indicated that, even if it passed, it would not prevent him from securing fracking contracts on county parks.

“This premise that a ban keeps me or any other executive from authorizing drilling in our parks ignores the very documents that our government was founded on," Fitzgerald said.

His statement goes on to say he supports a move away from fossil fuels in the long run but sees fracking as "part of the path" to get there.

Fitzgerald also says he stands by his support for fracking at Deer Lakes Park and a separate county bill that authorized fracking at the Pittsburgh International Airport.

"I would make both agreements again because they were the right things for the county at the time," Fitzgerald maintains.

The latest bill is currently sitting in the council’s environmental committee and has not yet been scheduled for a full vote. Hallam says discussions have been underway to explore fracking operations at Round Hill Park and North Park.

Following the protest, most of the crowd filed into the council chambers, where more than 70 protesters registered to speak. Their comments delivered inside maintained the same tone of frustration and defiance.

“We urge you to take the necessary action to stop this insane thrust of greed,” said county resident Barbara Price.

Many of the speakers had been involved in protests against the fracking measures at Deer Lakes Park when a drilling contract was approved with the county in 2014. The deal brought in millions of dollars for the county that resulted in a $2.2 million investment into the affected park, but it also attracted its share of pushback.

Many residents rallied behind a bill similar to the current one that sought to ban fracking in parks in 2015, although it was ultimately voted down by a council majority.

Peterson remembers being a newly-relocated high school student when council approved the Deer Lakes Park contract in 2014. They describe the disrespect and dismissal from council members in response to concerns raised at that time and urge the assembly to show more support this time around.

“You have the choice to be brave, to fix a mistake and do what is right,” Peterson said.