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North Huntingdon group looks to raise drilling awareness

| Wednesday, April 30, 2014, 9:00 p.m.

Jen Miller knows there's really no way to stop Marcellus shale drilling from taking place in North Huntingdon.

But she is among a handful of people working to make sure residents at least get all the information they can about what is about to happen in the township.

“We attended a lot of meetings to try to convince the commissioners to vote against allowing drilling in our parks, but that didn't happen,” said Miller of North Huntingdon. “So we formed a group to begin gathering information and resources to try and help people understand more about what's going on.”

The group — the North Huntingdon Environmental Stewardship Project — is planning a series of informational meetings beginning Tuesday to discuss issues such as seismic testing, water and air quality testing, remediation of problems that arise, and state and local government involvement in the process.

The board of commissioners in February voted 5-2 to approve a pair of leases that give Huntley and Huntley Energy Exploration of Monroeville exclusive rights for the next 10 years to drill for Marcellus shale gas under the township's two largest parks, Braddock's Trail and Oak Hollow.

The leases call for the municipality to collect an up-front payment of $438,400 — $1,600 for each of the 274 acres covered by the agreement — as well as 16 percent from the net sale of oil and gas that is extracted.

The well pad for the drilling operations, which have not yet started, will be on private land outside the parks. Horizontal boring will be used to extract gas through a process called hydraulic fracturing, or fracking.

Commissioners Donald Austin and David Herold voted against allowing drilling in the parks.

The commissioners who voted to permit drilling — Chairman Richard Gray, Zachary Haigis, Brian West, Tom Krause and Tony Martino — defended their decision as a way to collect money that can be used for, among other things, improving parks and correcting problems that might affect the township when drilling on private land begins.

There currently are no Marcellus shale gas wells operating in the municipality, but township officials believe that a number of property owners have signed leases.

The commissioners also have stressed that local municipalities have no power to regulate drilling because permits are issued by the state, which also is responsible for environmental monitoring.

Nick Kennedy, a community advocate for the Mountain Watershed Association in Fayette County, said he will be at the first meeting to answer questions and will continue working with the North Huntingdon group. The association is a non-profit environmental organization that works to restore polluted waterways and reduce the environmental impact from coal mining and natural gas extraction.

“Marcellus drilling has only been going on in the state for a handful of years, so getting all the technical information and details isn't always easy,” Kennedy said. “Gas extraction is a serious industrial process that will change the face of a community. So it's important for residents to have a group like the one formed in North Huntingdon to turn to for answers.”

Miller, who lives on Sycamore Drive near Braddock's Trail Park, said the group also is trying to determine if there are more residents who are concerned about how drilling might impact the community.

“We had more than 30 people showing up at the meetings before the drilling leases were approved, and understandably that number went down once it passed,” Miller said. “But as we move forward toward drilling, we'd like to know if there are still people out there who have questions or want to get involved with the group.”

Tony LaRussa is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-856-7400, ext. 8626, or at tlarussa@tribweb.com

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