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State questions proposal for Allegheny to monitor emissions

| Tuesday, Jan. 22, 2013, 12:10 a.m.

State environmental regulators are protesting the Allegheny County Health Department's proposal to track air emissions from a growing number of shale gas wells in the county.

County officials are mulling their first-rules for deep-shale gas wells in a package that could get a preliminary vote on Tuesday. County Air Quality Program officials want to require drillers to notify them during certain stages of drill work — including well boring and hydraulic fracturing — so the county could monitor emissions.

The state Department of Environmental Protection believes the rules would be redundant because the state requires similar notifications from drillers, Deputy Secretary Vincent J. Brisini wrote to the county during the public comment period. An industry group and the state claimed county rules could cause confusion because of discrepancies with state rules centered on the definition of an “unconventional well” used for shale drilling.

“It is possible that the regulated community will be forced to speculate regarding the significance of the differences,” Louis D. D'Amico, executive director of the Pennsylvania Independent Oil and Gas Association, wrote to the county. He warned it could lead to a “competitive disadvantage” if drillers have added reporting requirements in Allegheny County.

The Garfield-based Group Against Smog and Pollution urged passage of the rules.

Tuesday's vote by the air program's regulation subcommittee could send the plan to the Board of Health for a vote in March, said Jim Thompson, program manager.

Pollution from natural gas work sites can increase ozone in the air, a special problem for Pittsburgh because it has one of the country's worst ozone problems, environmentalists have said.

Industrial air polluters of all types in Allegheny County complain about the layers of regulation. The county has special jurisdiction over air quality within its borders — filling the role the DEP has elsewhere in Pennsylvania — often leading to protests from industrial groups and companies when county officials consider new air protection rules.

The county would need to determine whether that special jurisdiction applies to unconventional gas drilling, Brisini said. The state passed oil and gas rules a year ago and excluded local governments from regulating the industry.

Federal and state decisions long ago granted the county its jurisdiction and Act 13 should not diminish that, Thompson said.

He declined further comment, saying county officials would provide a draft of their official response at Tuesday's meeting. The Air Quality Program's regulation subcommittee meets at 9:30 a.m. in the Clack Health Center Building No. 7 in Lawrenceville.

There are 38 wells in Allegheny County — all on the outskirts — representing a small but growing share of the state's unconventional wells primarily targeting the Marcellus shale, state records show. The goal is to get a sense of their impact and determine if the county needs tougher regulations on air emissions, county officials have said.

“This simple notification system will allow ... inspectors to be in the right place at the right time,” wrote Jamin Bogi, an education and outreach coordinator at the Group Against Smog and Pollution. “Rather than play catch-up once drilling takes off here, our inspectors will be in front of any potential issues.”

Timothy Puko is a staff writer for Trib Total Media.

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