Allegheny looks to Washington County as example in drilling in parks
In a shady corner of Cross Creek Lake, three workers with weed wackers spent a sunny afternoon clearing brush, widening a path to the shallow, lily-covered water.
They're making room for a new launch for canoes and kayaks, part of a multimillion-dollar plan Washington County has for its biggest county park, Cross Creek.
To do this, the county agreed to permit shale-gas drilling all over the park. Up the hillside just west of the launch spot, two completed well pads each cover about an acre of land. They each have six tanks to collect liquid gas and a small tangle of pipes around two well heads.
Two more pads are under construction on the park's edge, and there could be as many as two more after that.
It's a trade-off for the county: Give up less than a dozen acres — out of 2,800 — for pads and pipeline, and get the money it needs to develop some of the park's mix of meadows and wilderness with docks and trails and roads to reach them.
Drilling in the park's gas-rich Marcellus shale has raised nearly $6 million for the county in six years, though it hasn't happened without complaints and environmental sacrifices, including five state environmental violations.
“We're not happy when they're building roads and people complain,” Scott Fergus, the county's director of administration, said while driving through the park, which covers Cross Creek Township, Hopewell and West Middleton. “But when they're done and gone — and the royalties come in — it's good for the county.”
The site and its history are drawing attention from all over. That includes environmental activists who believe the site is a legacy of drilling don'ts and Allegheny County officials looking to learn from the experience.
Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald plans to tour Cross Creek park this summer. His administration is exploring an offer to drill under Deer Lakes Park in Frazer and West Deer. Allegheny County's nine parks have $100 million in deferred maintenance that needs to be addressed, Fitzgerald has said.
“For the most part (reaction has) been very supportive. It's been, ‘If you can find other revenues to fix up our parks, that's something I think you should look at,' ” he said in a meeting this week with Tribune-Review editors and reporters.
He acknowledged the county must weigh the risks. “Any type of industrial operation that can potentially cause pollution is something you're concerned about.”
Though drilling to access gas under Deer Lakes would take place from pads outside the park, pollution does travel, said Nadia Steinzor, an official with Earthworks, a Washington--based nonprofit organization.
At Cross Creek, the group found a neighborhood outside its border, Rea, had the highest levels of benzene inhalation exposure of 34 drilling areas it tested in Pennsylvania, Steinzor said.
At 1.5 micrograms per cubic meter, it would be near the limit typically acceptable for exposure at industrial sites, creating about a 1 in 100,000 risk of cancer if breathed for 70 years, according to federal data.
State regulators cited the drilling company, Cecil-based Range Resources Corp., for five violations from three incidents in the park, the most recent occurring Feb. 2, according to data the Department of Environmental Protection posts online.
The incidents involved spills or leaks of drilling wastewater, one of which resulted in a fish kill in the park.
The DEP fined the company $23,500 from one incident in 2009, but did not fine it for other incidents in 2010 or this year, records show.
“I don't want people to be deceived in Allegheny County, ... to think our park is the poster child for drilling when it's actually been a total disaster,” said Bob Donnan, an activist from Peters who tracks violations and other problems with drilling in the park. “You could call the drilling in the park a comedy of errors if it wasn't so serious and egregious.”
The company's spokesman, Matt Pitzarella, disagreed with Donnan's assessment. He called the incidents minor, claiming the animals that died in the fish kill were mostly insects and microorganisms that, combined, weighed less than one pound.
“Each incident is a result of human or mechanical errors that resulted in minor spills, none of which had any significant impact,” he said in an email. “The 2009 spill actually resulted in new practices that emerged from the incident, in terms of how we transfer water.”
Washington County Commissioner Larry Maggi has said it's hard to find signs of problems from Range's work.
For some park users, day-to-day changes are the problem.
Some complain about a blocked road that is reserved for Range and county workers. Walt Sarafin, 56, of Robinson, said he lost his favorite pheasant-hunting spot to a well pad.
“I suppose (the park) can always use improvement. But desecration of wildlife habitat is not improvement,” Sarafin said. “I have my doubts as to whether they can reclaim the footprint of the drilling rig.”
County officials believe the work will be worth it in the end, they said.
The road that's blocked was resurfaced and doesn't drain sediment into the lake, they said. The county is using gas money to add docks and maintenance vehicles, and to repair pavement and playgrounds. A pipeline right-of-way will become a walking and biking trail.
Timothy Puko is a Trib Total Media staff writer. He can be reached at 412-320-7991 or firstname.lastname@example.org.