For eight months, members of Allegheny County Council have been “getting hammered,” Councilman John Palmiere said.
People have stepped up to the microphone in council chambers at the Allegheny County Courthouse, expressing worries about a plan to lease the land beneath Deer Lakes Park for natural gas drilling.
Wednesday night, Mr. Palmiere, a Banksville Democrat, leaned into his own microphone.
“Are any of these concerns legitimate?” he asked.
This time, it was Range Resources fielding the questions.
A six-man panel of representatives from Range, including John Applegath, the senior vice president for the Southern Marcellus Shale division, appeared before council members at the parks committee’s second meeting about the Deer Lakes plan.
County Executive Rich Fitzgerald has proposed a lease with Range for the mineral rights beneath the 1,180-acre park. The lease, which would yield a $4.7 million bonus payment, $3 million for the parks improvement fund and 18 percent royalties, would allow no drilling operations on the surface of the park.
Instead, horizontal wells would extend beneath the park from three well pads on private property. Council will be voting on an ordinance that permits the leasing of the mineral rights beneath the park.
Range representatives answered questions and presented a 90-minute PowerPoint presentation and video, covering topics ranging from the mechanics of the drilling process to Range’s leasing footprint in communities including Frazer and West Deer around Deer Lakes to the company’s safety record.
To Mr. Palmiere’s question, Barry Osborne, land manager for Range, said the concerns are understandable.
But he said: “No, the concerns are not legitimate if you do your homework.”
Mr. Palmiere said he had been doing his homework.
“I feel that some of these arguments, and some of these people’s concerns, are real,” he said, citing worries about air, groundwater and noise pollution, as well as the effect on property values.
Range Resources representatives went into detail about their drilling operations and their safety procedures.
Council members had many other questions, and Range came with more answers than last week, when it did not have the full panel present.
A well pad on the Frazer farm owned by the Gulick family will be 800 feet from the park boundaries, Mr. Applegath said.
And he answered more emphatically when asked whether Range will proceed with plans to develop the well pad on the Gulick farm, regardless of council’s vote.
“Absolutely,” he said, since wells can be developed not in the direction of the park. He said Range’s drilling plans in the region predates knowledge that drilling beneath the park was a possibility.
“We are going to develop that acreage,” he said.
Mr. Applegath said that “for competitive reasons” he could not yet tell council members where Range planned to place the two additional well pads for drilling beneath the park, because Range is still negotiating the locations.
Heather Heidelbaugh, a Mt. Lebanon Republican, wanted to know what Range would do if there was a fire or a blowout on a well pad site.
Steve Johnson, environmental health and safety manager for Range, said the company would coordinate with company representatives on the scene, DEP representatives, emergency responders for the community and the county and well-control contractors in Texas.
Councilwoman Sue Means, R-Bethel Park, pressed Range for details about how long industrial activity could continue in the region, and Councilwoman Barbara Daly Danko, D- Regent Square, asked whether drilling in various shale formations could continue for “many,many years.”
“Yes, it could,” Mr. Applegath said.
The meeting was intended to be a time for council members to ask legal questions about the lease, but four hours into the meeting, that topic still had not been reached.
Ms. Means, joined by other council members, asked Chairman Nick Futules, D-Oakmont, to end the meeting and reschedule it for a new day so council members would be fresh with their questions.
But Mr. Futules said the meeting would push on, till light if need be.
Alvin Henderson, the county’s emergency services chief, gave a quick presentation.
The portion of the meeting devoted to legal questions about the lease didn't arrive until 10 p.m., when only a few council members remained.
Ms. Heidelbaugh and Councilman Ed Kress, a Republican from Shaler, both attorneys, asked most of the questions. Ms. Heidelbaugh, who said she had consulted with an outside attorney, posed questions ranging from whether the lease could be attached to the ordinance before council to the the term of the lease and the way royalties are calculated.
Mr. Kress, too, asked about royalty calculations and for details about the job fair.
The legal discussion of the lease is not over. Mr. Futules recessed the committee meeting at 11:30 p.m. until next Wednesday, when the meeting will resume in the Allegheny County Courthouse to discuss the legal questions surrounding the lease and questions about economic impact. And sometime after that, a vote will be taken.
For Mr. Palmiere, it will not be an easy one.
“This is the toughest issue I have ever had to vote on,” he said. “This is gut-wrenching for me.”
Also, Range Resources plans to hold an open house about its operations from 5 to 8 p.m. on May 1 at the West Deer Volunteer Fire Department 1, 1520 Saxonburg Blvd.
Kaitlynn Riely: firstname.lastname@example.org.