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Allegheny County Council gives approval to drilling in Deer Lakes Park

| Wednesday, May 7, 2014, 12:13 a.m.
Andrew Russell | Tribune-Review
Terri Supowitz, 71 of Wilkinsburg (middle) attempts to roll up a petition signed by people opposed to tracking on public lands during an Allegheny County Council meeting in the Gold Room at the Allegheny County Courthouse, Tuesday

The Allegheny County Council early Wednesday approved a proposal to drill for natural gas under Deer Lakes Park, clearing the way for drilling to possibly start this year.

Council voted 9-5 at the end of a seven-hour meeting to allow energy companies Range Resources and Huntley & Huntley to extract natural gas buried more than a mile below the 1,180-acre park in West Deer and Frazer.

“It's not a perfect deal, but it's a good deal,” said Councilman Ed Kress, R-Shaler, who cast one of the swing votes and represents the area of Deer Lakes Park. “I'm trying to arrange a future for the people in my district.”

Council members Barbara Daly Danko, D-Regent Square; Heather Heidelbaugh, R-Mt. Lebanon; Sue Means, R-Bethel Park; Jan Rea, R-McCandless, and Bill Robinson, D-Hill District, voted against the proposal. Councilwoman Amanda Green-Hawkins, D-Stanton Heights, abstained.

“This is a short-term gain. To hell with our grandchildren,” Danko said before the vote.

Following the vote, members of the public chanted “shame” and yelled at council members. Council Vice President Nick Futules, D-Oakmont, yelled obscenities back at one member of the audience.

“This battle is only a beginning. We are considering court action following this blatant disregard of the wishes of the county residents,” Protect Our Parks, a coalition organized against the proposal, said in a statement after the vote.

The vote came after more than four hours of public comment on the proposal. Members of Protect Our Parks unrolled a scroll of more than 7,000 signatures — wrapping around the council chambers twice — from county residents opposed to the drilling.

“I think you're not just voting on a specific lease but on a precedent,” said Jules Lobel, a professor at the University of Pittsburgh Law School. “You are setting a precedent that you can use the parks for industrial purposes.”

Under the proposal, Range Resources would drill five wells under the northern portion of the park from a well pad about 800 feet outside the park's boundary on private property owned by Ken and Christine Gulick. The county would receive $4.7 million upfront, a $3 million donation to a parks improvement fund and 18 percent royalties from gas production that could be worth $60 million to $70 million over the life of the wells, according to estimates.

“I really feel that we need to do this project just to prove to people that drilling can be done right,” James Converse, a member of Friends of South Park, said, drawing laughter from a crowd populated with many opponents to the proposal. “We have a tremendous amount of problems in all our parks and the money needs to come from somewhere. Are we going to raise taxes?”

The companies hope to start drilling this year and plan to tap more of the park from additional well pads in the future, officials said during a series of committee meetings on the proposal.

“There are horror stories of families that can't sell their land or can't let their children out to play,” said Russell Fedorka of Elizabeth. “Why can't we protect at least our parks? If you vote to protect the park, you can tell your children that you stood up for the beauty of Deer Lakes Park.”

County Executive Rich Fitzgerald said in a statement that “the county's participation in this lease allows us to further protect our community with additional environmental enhancements while also bringing revenues to our parks. Allegheny County taxpayers benefit by having revenue that doesn't come from our property taxes to invest in our parks and our county.”

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