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Indiana County Commissioners seek Marcellus drilling guidance

| Thursday, May 12, 2011

The Indiana County Board of Commissioners would like to see increased guidance from the state when it comes to dealing with issues involving Marcellus Shale drilling at the county level.

The commissioners met Tuesday with Robert Johnson, deputy director of Gov. Tom Corbett's Southwest Office, which serves Indiana County. The commissioners met with Johnson to discuss a number of topics, including natural gas drilling in the Marcellus Shale.

Interest in that topic flared up at an April 13 commissioners' meeting when members of the public came to either support or oppose a proposal by MDS Energy to drill for natural gas near Yellow Creek State Park. The site in question was located within a conservation zone, in which gas drilling requires a special permit according to a county ordinance.

Last week, the Indiana County Zoning Hearing Board denied the MDS proposal but invited the company to re-apply for a permit, citing specific conditions that would need to be met for the permit's approval.

Citizens at the April meeting asked the commissioners to update the county ordinance since it was written before the era of Marcellus Shale drilling.

In order to do that, Commissioner Rod Ruddock said, the county would like to have some guidance from the state. "We want to know exactly what our legal restrictions are as we move forward, and it would seem to me that the state would have a better handle on that than we would," Ruddock said after Wednesday's commissioners' meeting. "They should be able to step up to the plate and help us with those decisions. Frankly, we need that kind of support because we're not staffed to do that here at the county level."

Ruddock added that the county would also like to see more engagement from the Department of Environmental Protection.

The commissioners expressed those feelings to Johnson Tuesday.

"Hopefully, he will take that message back to Lieutenant Governor (Jim Cawley) and explain how important it is that we have support here in Indiana," Ruddock said, "and he said he would."

During Wednesday's meeting, the commissioners acknowledged a letter they received from the Central Indiana County Water Authority requesting that the county enact stronger regulations on Marcellus Shale drilling and hydraulic fracturing in the county, or even place a moratorium on drilling.

"We feel this is necessary until the regulating agencies determine the short- and long-term impact such activity has on environmental conditions, and particularly streams, water wells, ponds and all other aquifers," the letter stated.

The water authority serves 4,000 customers in Homer City Borough, Center Township and White Township. The Yellow Creek reservoir, near the proposed MDS site that was denied, is the authority's water source.

If Yellow Creek were tainted due to hydraulic fracturing, the authority said the results would be "catastrophic." The letter was signed by five officers from the authority.

Ruddock said the commissioners would enter the letter into the formal record and present it to the Office of Planning and Development as county officials consider future steps in dealing with Marcellus Shale drilling.

The county's Natural Gas Task Force, formed recently to help with that process, is up to 70 members now, and Ruddock suggested Wednesday that new additions to that list be put on hold until the task force is actually able to meet.

County officials are hoping the task force will meet within the next month, but the group's size has made it somewhat difficult to find a location. The latest additions to the task force are Vernon Blystone, citizen; Carson Greene Jr., citizen; Sherri Medivitz, Pennsylvania American Water; Kenneth Bisbee, Yellow Creek State Park; and Dr. John Benhart, Indiana University of Pennsylvania. All are appointed to one-year terms. Mary Roland of Pennsylvania American Water was removed from the task force, replaced by Medivitz.

In other matters, the commissioners approved a number of change orders to the Blairsville Sewage Treatment Plant expansion project, including a $99,500 increase in the HVAC contract for ventilation system modifications at the main pump station.

Design revisions were necessitated by hazardous classification code requirements for the pump station. The change order will be paid for by Blairsville Municipal Authority's state PennVest funding.

A change order to a water line project in Brush Valley Township will add public water service for seven additional households on Cresswell Road and Roundtop Road.

The Indiana County commissioners observed a moment of silence at their meeting Wednesday in memory of county auditor Clair Pierce, who died Tuesday.

"The moment of silence today, I think, reflects that we miss a great individual committed to Indiana County," Commissioner Rod Ruddock said after the meeting. "He always enjoyed coming to work, he believed in the community, and he was visible at many community events. I know those of us who have had a chance to work him at the county are going to miss him greatly."

Pierce, a Republican, was in his first term as a county auditor, and he was running for re-election in Tuesday's primary.

County officials said the Court of Common Pleas will name a replacement to serve out the end of the term, and the Republican party will choose a candidate to replace Pierce on the general election ballot in November.

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