FAA finds 'no significant impact' with Consol gas drilling plan near Pittsburgh International Airport

Consol Energy got to check another item off its to-do list this week.

The Cecil-headquartered company, which plans to begin its initial gas drilling operations at Pittsburgh International Airport this summer, had submitted -- together with the Allegheny County Airport Authority -- an environmental assessment for federally required review late last year.

The Federal Aviation Administration announced Thursday that it had completed its review of the assessment, a document several thousand pages long, and determined that the project "would not create any significant environmental impacts."

The environmental assessment was also reviewed and approved by other federal agencies, including the Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, the Federal Highway Administration and the Army Corps of Engineers, all of which represents passage over a "significant hurdle" for moving its project forward, Consol said in a statement released Thursday.

"Approval of the EA by a broad range of federal agencies speaks to the care we have taken to design a first-class project that we intend to make a flagship effort for the region," Nick DeIuliis, president of Consol Energy, said in a statement.

The FAA required the report under the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 to identify any potential impacts and mitigation related to drilling at the airport. The FAA used the environmental assessment to determine what the agency refers to as a "Finding of No Significant Impact/Record of Decision" which allows Consol to proceed with its drilling project.

"It's a very big step," said Katharine Fredriksen, senior vice president of environmental strategy and regulatory affairs for Consol, about the FAA notification.

She said Consol took steps to "minimize our footprint," including details about timing, location and what equipment to use. She said Pittsburgh International Airport will be the second major U.S. airport to have a gas drilling operation; Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport was the first.

Consol plans to drill for natural gas on about 9,000 acres of county-owned land and has said that all planned wells are a safe distance away from runways and other airport operations. The plan calls for six well pads, with at least 45 Marcellus and Upper Devonian shale wells and three water impoundments.

Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald, who has pushed for the drilling project, called the FAA's finding "good news."

The deal to drill at Pittsburgh International Airport came together last year, after county council approved a deal between Consol and the Allegheny County Airport Authority. The contract included a $50 million bonus for the airport authority, with $450 million expected in royalty payments over the next 20 years. The plan also calls for about $500 million in infrastructure improvements.

The FAA's decision was not greeted as good news by all. John Detwiler, a retired Squirrel Hill engineer and a member of the Marcellus Protest group, said he reviewed the environmental assessment himself and submitted a public comment, one of three Ms. Fredriksen said was received from the public by the county Airport Authority and forwarded to the FAA. He said he didn't think the assessment adequately addressed the environmental impact of fracking.

"This may have satisfied the FAA's requirements, but nobody should think that the FAA did a thorough environmental assessment of fracking," he said.

The FAA's decision, and the environmental assessment, will be available for public review April 1-30 at the airport and at municipal buildings in Moon, Findlay, North Fayette and Robinson.

A few more approval hurdles remain before Consol can begin its drilling operations, said Ms. Fredriksen. The company must still obtain permits from the state Department of Environmental Protection and from the Army Corps of Engineers.

It is also awaiting approval of two conditional-use applications from Findlay. Chris Caruso, assistant manager for Findlay, said Thursday that the township's board of supervisors has not yet set a date for when it will make a decision.

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

First Published March 27, 2014 2:21 PM

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