Officials make case for gas drilling at Deer Lakes Park

It was clearly Rich Fitzgerald's meeting.

The Allegheny County executive traveled to Deer Lakes High School on Wednesday for a public, informational meeting he had set to discuss a plan to allow off-site drilling for natural gas beneath county-owned, 1,180- acre Deer Lakes Park.

For the first 45 minutes, the approximately 400 people who attended heard first from Mr. Fitzgerald, then from a representative from Range Resources, then from a parade of officials speaking in favor of the plan for the park that lies in Frazer and West Deer.

Jim Roddey, a former county executive and chair of the Allegheny County Republican Committee, spoke in favor of it, calling it "vital" to obtain additional funding for the parks.

On the other side of the political aisle, Nancy Mills, chair of the Democratic Committee of Allegheny County, said she was in favor of it, too.

So was Gerry Vaerewyck, an elected supervisor in West Deer, Ken Gulick, a Frazer resident whose property is expected to be the site of a proposed well pad site, Michael Hillebrand of Huntley & Huntley and Jack Shea, president of the Allegheny County Labor Council.

"There's nothing the matter with getting into the game, when this is the game in southwestern Pennsylvania," Mr. Shea said.

It was a four-hour meeting, however, and by no means was it limited to one perspective.

Mr. Fitzgerald said Wednesday night that he wanted to hear from both sides. And by the end of it, he had.

The drilling plan has been a topic of Allegheny County Council meetings for months. But while those meeting have been dominated by those against the drilling, the meeting in West Deer seemed evenly split between people opposed to and in favor of drilling.

Those opposed to it were still as vocal in northern Allegheny County as they are Downtown, with many expressing concern about the environmental impacts and Mr. Fitzgerald's arguments that drilling is happening anyway, so the county should get involved to ensure greater protections.

"You talk as if you were a company man now," said John Detwiler, a Squirrel Hill resident who is a member of the Protect our Parks group, which held a news conference prior to the meeting to speak against the drilling plan, with many speakers expressing concern about environmental impact of the drilling.

The county's job is "to protect our parks, not industrialize it," said Ed Chute, a Mt. Lebanon resident.

The plan Mr. Fitzgerald announced last month is a deal between the county and Range Resources and Huntley & Huntley. The proposed 81-page lease, which requires approval by Allegheny County Council, would yield a $4.7 million bonus to the county, along with $3 million for parks improvements, plus 18 percent royalties, which Mr. Fitzgerald estimated at $3 to $4 million a year for 15 to 20 years.

He has described it as the "most-comprehensive nonsurface lease" in the state, and Wednesday night he again detailed what he described as enhancements the county had obtained, including expanded water testing requirements and steps to minimize lighting and truck traffic impacts.

He and other speakers reminded attendees that drilling was already happening in the area.

Mark Windle of Range Resources said the company has been drilling in Fawn and Frazer since 2010.

They've also drilled beneath Cross Creek Park in Washington County, and Harlan G. Shober Jr., a county commissioner there, spoke early in the meeting in support of drilling.

"It's been a good experience for us," he said.

For Deer Lakes Park, the lease will result in improvements, Mr. Gulick said.

"After all of our research, we feel it is very safe," Mr. Gulick said, whose property will hold one of the well pads for the horizontal wells.

About 75 people signed up in advance to speak. More public comment will likely be heard once the topic reaches council's agenda next week.

Kaitlynn Riely: or 412-263-1707.

First Published April 3, 2014 12:00 AM

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