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Mars Area School Board rejects drilling proposal

| Tuesday, March 11, 2014, 7:42 p.m.

More than 150 Mars Area School District residents cheered loudly Tuesday night as the nine-member school board voted unanimously to reject Rex Energy's proposal to conduct horizontal drilling for oil and gas underneath district property along Route 228.

“This is not just for today, but forever,” said Amy Nassif of Adams. “The community has spoken. We do not want this type of industry near our children.”

The school board rejected an agreement that would have paid the district just over $1 million for a five-year lease. The pact promised the district about $4,000 an acre for drilling rights about a mile underneath nearly 175 acres of school property.

The $1 million payment included about $330,000 in advance royalties for the rights to drill from a site about 4,000 feet from district property. The district would have received 15 percent of royalties from the drilling.

It was the second time that the board rejected a lease agreement with Rex, the first in 2009.

Rex still plans to develop the well pad site, off Denny Road in Middlesex, that would have been the starting point for the subsurface drilling under district property.

“While disappointed, we respect the school board's decision,” said Mike Endler, Rex Energy spokesman. “We will maintain open communication with the district and other community stakeholders as Rex Energy moves forward with safe, tightly regulated development plans for this project.”

“The Rex lease offers a small financial incentive to the district that cannot possibly justify the potential personal and environmental negative effects,” school board member Christine Valenta said. “Again, we need to be prepared to expect the unexpected. We need to remain focused on doing everything within our power to remain a safe environment for students, staff and community not only for today but for generations to come.”

The school district's rejection means that the Mars Home For Youth won't be able to finalize a separate lease agreement to drill under its property, because school district property is between the youth home and the drill site, Rex officials said.

Board solicitor Tom King said questions remained as to how much of the mineral rights the school district owned on the 175 acres because a full title search hadn't been done. There's also a question of long-term liability from the substances that are used in the extraction process, he said.

The drilling proposal had drawn strong opposition from parents, who cited safety concerns. Nassif presented directors the signatures of about 900 people, collected in person and online, opposing the plan.

The grassroots group Protect Our Children — which is partnering with members of the Marcellus Outreach Butler and Marcellus Outreach Middlesex — said it has concerns about environmental pollution and its effects on children. The groups want a ban on drilling within a mile of the school.

“Thank you, school board. You did the right thing, but we as a community need to take the next step,” said Charles Clark, who has a second-grader attending Mars Elementary.

Bill Vidonic is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-380-5621 or bvidonic@tribweb.com.

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