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Leechburg Area postpones decision to lease property for natural gas drilling

| Wednesday, Aug. 20, 2014, 7:49 a.m.

The Leechburg Area School Board has postponed until September its decision to lease district property in West Leechburg for natural gas drilling.

A vote was scheduled for Tuesday to enter into an oil and natural gas agreement with EQT Production Co. for an 8.3-acre tract at Main and Giron streets. It was postponed, according to board member Megan Hamm, to allow officials more time to gather information and collaborate with other organizations that also have agreements pending with EQT.

“We just want us and the public to have as much information as possible before we move forward,” Hamm said. “We want to meet publicly with EQT and the other organizations involved so that we can make a well-informed and transparent decision.”

Leechburg Area's property in West Leechburg is a small portion of EQT's plans to drill in the immediate area. Already, an agreement has been reached with Allegheny Township to drill beneath two 25-acre municipally-owned sites.

Agreements to drill beneath two other tracts in West Leechburg are pending approval from borough council and the West Leechburg Volunteer Fire Company.

Leechburg Area Superintendent Ian Magness said district officials will meet in the coming weeks with West Leechburg Council, the fire company and EQT to ensure everyone is aware of the company's plans and the impact they'll have on the area.

“Nothing about this should be construed as disparaging toward EQT,” Magness said. “They've been very forthcoming. The board just wants to make sure everyone is well-educated before approving the agreement.”

If it's approved and a title search of the property's mineral rights favor the district, Leechburg Area will receive a $26,500 signing bonus on the lease. The district would pay 10 percent of that bonus to Westmoreland Pennsylvania Gas Consultants LLC for connecting Leechburg Area with EQT.

Leechburg Area also would be paid 18 percent monthly royalties from EQT's sale of oil, gas and other hydrocarbons produced from underneath the property. Estimates on monthly earnings from the site were unavailable on Tuesday.

No gas wells or other drilling equipment would be allowed on the vacant property, which served as the site of West Leechburg Elementary.

The gas would be extracted using hydraulic fracturing — fracking — and brought to the surface at gas wells drilled elsewhere.

Ron Slabe, who owns property on Summit Street, takes no comfort in EQT's operations being relegated to subsurface drilling. Chief among his concerns, he said, are the potential health and environmental impacts, safety hazards, noise and increased traffic.

“Subsurface drilling in the area also invites surface drilling and all that comes with that,” he said. “Also, there still is little known about the dangers of subsurface drilling, which everybody seems to think of as benign or innocuous, when it's really not.”

EQT spokeswoman Josie Schultz said the company is looking forward to working in the coming weeks with residents and the organizations involved.

“We're happy to cooperate with the district and anyone else who might have questions,” she said. “We are here to listen to their concerns and provide them with all the information they'll need.”

Principal vacancy remains

Leechburg Area will be without an elementary school principal heading into the 2014-15 school year.

The district began searching for a permanent elementary school principal this summer after Frank Ippolito stepped down as district assistant principal to return to teaching full time. He, along with Principal Matt Kruluts, had overseen the entire district together and shared elementary school responsibilities.

Magness said the district is continuing to accept and review candidates.

“We don't want to rush to fill that position,” he said. “We want to make sure it's the right person.”

Magness said he will assist with the elementary school principal duties in the interim. No time line was available for when district officials expected to make a hire.

The board hired a district Title I teacher on Tuesday.

Jennifer Turner, who is currently teaching in a West Virginia school district, is expected to begin in mid-September at the district's starting salary of $45,000.

Turner replaces Nicole Musto, who remains in the district as a seventh-grade language arts teacher.

Braden Ashe is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-226-4673 or bashe@tribweb.com.

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