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Protest continues while Deer Lakes Park drilling dispute awaits Allegheny County Council's vote




For months, members of Allegheny County Council have heard from residents opposed to any and all plans for gas drilling beneath Deer Lakes Park.

Tuesday night, a day after county Executive Rich Fitzgerald unveiled an agreement for drilling beneath the park, those opponents were again out in force at the regular county council meeting, many wearing bright green scarves and holding signs opposed to fracking.

"County residents are against this," said Aaron Booz of Whitehall.

Another speaker, Valeri Jackson of Stowe, also spoke against the proposed plan.

"The risks are too great, for whatever the so-called benefits are," she said.

It will be up to the 15-member county council to vote on the agreement.

Mr. Fitzgerald announced the deal reached between the county and Range Resources and Huntley & Huntley at a Monday afternoon news conference. He described it again Tuesday during his regular quarterly address to county council.

The proposed lease calls for the county to receive a $4.7 million bonus payment, along with an additional $3 million to a parks improvement fund for the nine county parks, as well as 18 percent in royalties, an amount the county has estimated at $3 million annually.

Mr. Fitzgerald, speaking to council, emphasized that no drilling would happen on the surface of the parks. The deal calls for horizontal wells underneath the park's 1,180 acres, from three well pads on private property outside the park.

He told council members: "We're lucky to partner with a good company like Range," a statement that drew a sharp negative reaction from some people in attendance and use of a gavel from John DeFazio, the Shaler Democrat who is president of council.

Mr. Fitzgerald repeated his contention that the county's involvement in drilling operations would enhance the environmental and safety aspects of drilling operations that will be happening in the area anyway.

"If we really care about the environment, we should be part of this so we can really improve the environment for the people in this community," he said.

Mr. Fitzgerald asked to have legislation regarding the lease placed on council's Tuesday night agenda, but Mr. DeFazio said his request came too late and that he would have to wait. Mr. DeFazio said the Deer Lakes Park proposal will be on council's agenda at their next meeting in two weeks, and that it will be read and referred to committee for discussion.

Mr. Fitzgerald plans to hold a meeting about drilling plans at 7 p.m. April 2 at Deer Lakes High School, and Mr. DeFazio said he expects that council will hold "at least one," though possibly two, public hearings about the drilling plans. He did not, however, have a date or dates scheduled yet for those hearings.

Although county residents opposed to drilling beneath the parks have spoken at council meetings for months, it has been somewhat of a waiting game to see what the deal would be, said Mel Packer, 68, of Point Breeze, who spoke Tuesday night and who has been a frequent speaker at council meetings about drilling plans.

Now that the details of an agreement have been announced, he said to expect an increase in the efforts by opponents of drilling to persuade council members to vote against it.

"You'll see a lot more people coming," he said.

Kaitlynn Riely: kriely@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1707.

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