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Abandoned Richland gas well to get plugged in 2018

| Monday, Dec. 4, 2017, 9:00 p.m.

Richland Township resident Charlie Brethauer and his wife enjoy sitting on their deck in the summer, but several years ago they began catching occasional whiffs of natural gas.

As the years went on, the smells came more frequently. Hoping to find the source, Brethauer started looking around and noticed a patch about 20 feet from his deck where the soil was dark and the smell was stronger. As it turned out, Brethauer's property contained one of the thousands of abandoned gas and oil wells located throughout the state.

“I took a shovel and smashed it down into the dirt and found it,” he said. “It was covered by an upside-down five-gallon bucket then covered with six inches of soil.”

Thanks to a $192,400 state grant awarded to Richland Township recently, that well, along with another abandoned well on the grounds of the former Pittsburgh Cut Flower Co., will be plugged in 2018.

Brethauer first approached the Richland Board of Supervisors in 2016 after a representative from the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, who'd confirmed the well's existence, informed him about the grant program. Individual homeowners can't apply for the grants, Brethauer said, but certain entities, including municipalities and townships, can.

Although they did not receive the grant last year, the township reapplied and recently learned of the award given by the Commonwealth Financing Authority.

Richland Township Manager Dean Bastianini credits the support of state Rep. Hal English, who saw the sites in person, House Speaker Mike Turzai and state Sen. Randy Vulakovich for their success in receiving the grant this year.

“They were instrumental in making sure our grant application received attention in Harrisburg,” Bastianini said. “Money is scarce and it's a very large problem, so without these state officials going to bat for us and seeking the award of the grant, there's no doubt it would not have happened.”

He and Brethauer both also credited the board of supervisors for recognizing the magnitude of the problem and authorizing the staff to work on the grant proposal. The board was expected to sign the agreement at the first meeting in December then begin seeking bids to complete the plugging of the two wells, with work expected to take place in 2018.

“The reality is there are thousands of wells like this in Pennsylvania with no responsible parties that can be identified,” Bastianini said. “Some of them date to the turn of the 1800s and they emit toxic, combustible fumes and pose an environmental threat and a threat to public health and safety. For these two in Richland to be plugged through this program is a testament to local and state governments working to make our community safer.”

Karen Price is a Tribune-Review contributor.

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