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Panel discusses pros and cons of fracking in Ligonier Valley

| Wednesday, Dec. 18, 2013, 9:02 p.m.

In an attempt to educate the public and local businesses on the topic of the Marcellus shale industry development in the area, the Mountain Laurel Chamber of Commerce conducted a presentation on hydraulic fracturing — commonly known as fracking — at the Indian Creek Valley Community Center on Dec. 10.

“As a chamber of commerce, our duty is to represent the interests of our area's businesses, including the community and environment in which they operate,” said Kris Enberg, chamber's executive director. “Regarding practices used to harvest our natural resources, our duty is to build awareness and educate.”

Fracking is the process of drilling and injecting fluid into the ground at a high pressure in order to fracture shale rocks to release the natural gas inside.

As it most often occurs in rural areas, western Pennsylvania is a prime spot for this project. The process is a controversial one, and many citizens have strong opinions resulting in clashing viewpoints about whether excavating gas in this manner is paving the road for our county to be more self sufficient with our natural resources or in fact harming the environment and those who live near the drilling sites.

The first in a series of three meeting which will provide positive source generated information, the evening began with a free public screening of the 2013 documentary FrackNation, created by investigative journalist Phelim McAleer.

The documentary examined the process of fracking for natural gas and aimed to address what the filmmakers say is misinformation about fracking — such as that it leeches chemicals into the ground, therefore contaminating water supplies, and is known to trigger earthquakes.

Panel discussion followed the viewing, and a question and answer session concluded the meeting.

Speakers included Jordan Frei, state Rep. Mike Reese's office; Kathryn Hilton, Mountain Watershed Association Marcellus Shale Citizen Collation; Davitt Woodwell, Western Regional Pennsylvania Environmental Council; Susan Oliver, WPX Energy; and Jason Rigone, Westmoreland County Economic Development Corporation.

“Pennsylvania's relationship with natural resources in very complicated,” said Woodwell of the Western Regional Pennsylvania Environmental Council. “There are real pros and cons and we'll be facing this for decades to come.”

Woodwell added that as we learn more about fracking, changes will have to be made and the industry will have to adapt.

Susan Oliver, manager of community relations with WPX Energy said fracking is currently being conducted in Cook Township and the Donegal area.

“Natural gas development provides the Laurel Highlands area, and our entire nation, the opportunity to benefit from clean burning, low cost, energy that is safely produced right here in Westmoreland County,” Oliver said.

It was noted that fracking in the area created many jobs and helped keep the Commonwealth afloat after the 2008 recession.

“Many jobs are supported by the natural gas industry,” said Rigone, executive director of Westmoreland County Industrial Development Corporation. “From an economic impact standpoint, this low-cost abundant supply of energy can bring even more jobs back to PA.”

Hilton, a community organizer of the Mountain Watershed Association, attended to discuss the organization's Marcellus Citizen Stewardship Project — developed to provide assistance to citizens in areas where shale gas development is occurring.

“All parts of the life-cycle of natural gas industrialization expose residents and workers to toxic substances which lead to negative health impacts,” said Hilton. “During every part of the life-cycle, from well pad, to pipeline, to compressor station, to processing facility, to natural gas fired power plant, there is an inevitability of human error and mechanical failure which will further expose residents and workers to toxins.”

The stewardship project assists citizens in protecting their property, health and environment from impacts of Marcellus shale activity, said Hilton.

“We also assist citizens in reporting pollution incidents as well as gathering information that can be used by others to tell the story of drilling impacts, she said.”

Hilton said that the fact of the matter is that the impacts of drilling for natural gas are just now starting to come to the surface.

“As time goes on, more and more instances of contamination are coming to light,” she said.

During the question and answer portion of the evening, many locals expressed concern about contamination of water sources.

Annie MacDougall of Cook Township questioned the fracking process in her community. She cited an example of a family in the Donegal area who was having water contamination issues after fracking occurred on their property.

“What is WPX doing to rectify this situation?” she asked. In response, Oliver stated that

it was not determined that the drilling was the cause of the contamination.

Douglas and Bridget Shields who owns a residence in Rector also voiced concerns.

“The promoters of drilling always avoid the downside and promote the up side. There is no mention or illustration of hazard and risks,” said Douglas Shields. “Inability to get a mortgage, homeowners insurance, how it impacts a mine subsidence insurance policy if other third parties are released from liability or possible surface or subsurface contamination of the owners property. And the worst is the non disclosure of the health risks from exposures to BETX and other airborne toxins. This is all typical of a meeting sponsored by industry and their supporters. People come to them for information and they get a glossed over and contorted view of the matter. The ‘jobs and money' matters are pushed and the realities are hidden away.”

In March, the group will cover Act 13 impact fee and the many economic benefits to local communities and businesses in the area.

Cami DiBattista is a contributing writer for Trib Total Media.

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