Allegheny County Council poses its own questions on Deer Lakes drilling

For months, members of Allegheny County Council have heard from county residents speaking about the plan to drill for natural gas beneath Deer Lakes Park.

"Now, it's the council members' turn," said Councilman Nicholas Futules, D-Oakmont, chair of the council's parks committee.

Several members of council took turns Wednesday night offering their thoughts about the plan council is considering and posing questions to a 10-person panel that included county officials, the head of the Allegheny County Health Department, a geologist, and representatives from Range Resources and Huntley & Huntley and from the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection.

Many of the questions from council members echoed concerns raised by residents at previous meetings, including about health and safety.

Heather Heidelbaugh, R-Mt. Lebanon and an at-large council member, said she was trying to "step in the shoes of all Allegheny County citizens" to determine if the county was looking at a good deal.

The focus of the meeting was environmental and safety factors, and questions posed ranged widely, from inquiries about the science of hydraulic fracking, water testing procedures, distinction between the lease and the ordinance and the companies' drilling plans in the region around the park.

Rich Fitzgerald, the county executive, has pushed for the agreement. The deal would lease the county's mineral rights beneath the 1,180-acre park to Range Resources and Huntley & Huntley. There would be no drilling on the surface of the park, but the deal would yield a $4.7 million bonus to the county, $3 million to the parks improvement fund and 18 percent in royalties.

Council President John DeFazio, D-Shaler, asked about safety.

"In my opinion, in my experience, sir, it's safe," said Ed Valentas, land manager for Huntley.

Ed Kress, a Republican from Shaler whose district includes West Deer, had several questions about the drilling process, noise pollution and the possibility of contamination, especially of water.

He and Councilwoman Sue Means, R-Bethel Park, who asked a similar question about water, were told that, rather than water impoundments, used water would instead be collected in storage tanks on private property in what is called a "closed loop system," said C. Barry Osborne, Range's vice president of land for southern Marcellus Shale.

Jim Ellenbogen, D-Banksville, asked about reports that fracking in Ohio had been linked to earthquakes. Dan Billman, a geologist hired by the county, said the types of wells involved in those incidents were saltwater disposal wells, which involves a different process than those wells that will be near Deer Lakes Park.

Ms. Heidelbaugh asked the Range Resources representative if drilling will take place if the lease wasn't approved.

Mr. Osborne said it was "difficult to say" for the specific well pads that have been discussed related to the plan beneath Deer Lakes. He said Range could still drill one or more lateral wells not in the direction of the park from the lease the company has with the Gulick family of Frazer.

Later, in response to a follow-up question from Mr. DeFazio, he said the leases in the area were bought "with full intent of drilling them." Following the meeting, he added that Range already has drilling operations underway in the region surrounding the park.

Another question posed by Ms. Heidelbaugh is one that will likely come up again. Council is reviewing the lease negotiated by Mr. Fitzgerald, but will be voting on an ordinance that leases the county land, with the provision that no drilling operations occur on county land. The proposed lease itself is not attached.

Ms. Heidelbaugh asked what would happen once Mr. Fitzgerald leaves office and the next administration and new county executive arrives.

"That woman will have the opportunity to change this lease in any way she deems necessary," she said.

Andrew Szefi, the county solicitor, said the provision regarding no drilling on county land could not be changed without council approval. Other changes to the lease require written approval by both parties. Mr. Szefi said it had not been practice in the county to attach a lease to an ordinance.

Mr. Futules said more discussion in that vein could take place next week.

Mr. Osborne, the Range representative, deferred several questions about the fracking process, including about flaring of wells and water testing, until next week when he said Range would have a panel of representatives available to answer questions.

Barbara Daly Danko, D-Regent Square, said she was interested in seeing a map of the three proposed drilling plans in relation to the county park.

Range and Huntley plan to hold an open house about fracking May 1 in West Deer, with the exact location to be announced.

Only a handful of people sat in the audience of the Gold Room of the Allegheny County Courthouse to observe the four-hour meeting.

It was a much different scene from Tuesday night, when 80 people testified in a public hearing hosted by council about the drilling plan. Most of the people who spoke Tuesday, which included several industry and union representatives, were in favor of the plan, though council also heard from more than 30 opposed to it.

Council members will meet again at 5 p.m. Wednesday for a second parks committee meeting regarding Deer Lakes. They will hear a presentation from Range Resources, information from Alvin Henderson, the county's Emergency Services Chief, and from attorneys about legal issues regarding the lease and ordinance.

Ms. Heidelbaugh said that during the committee process she hoped to hear more from people who are not connected from the county or industry.

Kaitlynn Riely:

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