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Catholic Cemeteries to permit gas drilling among the headstones

| Wednesday, Aug. 18, 2010

A Monroeville drilling company could tap natural gas beneath 15 cemeteries in Allegheny and Washington counties under a lease signed by the Catholic Cemeteries Association of the Diocese of Pittsburgh, the association's director said Tuesday.

The association leased nearly 1,060 acres of cemetery land in 2008 to Huntley & Huntley Inc., including the 200-acre Calvary Cemetery in Hazelwood, which City Councilman Doug Shields called "ground zero" in the debate over whether natural gas drilling should be permitted in Pittsburgh.

"You don't put oil and gas fields in urban areas," Shields said during a news conference about legislation he will propose next month to ban drilling in city limits. "There's too much that can go wrong."

Even as a high-priced consultant to the gas industry, former Gov. Tom Ridge said he wouldn't want to spend his afterlife on a drill site.

"I'd have a tough time putting a rig down next to my tomb or next to anyone I'm related to," Ridge, a strategic consultant to the Marcellus Shale Coalition, said before addressing an energy conference Downtown yesterday. "Not next to mine."

Annabelle McGannon, executive director of the cemeteries association, said Huntley & Huntley has a five-year option to drill on cemetery land, but the company expressed no interest in drilling at Calvary. She said she signed the lease during the "height of the frenzy" to establish drilling rights on the Marcellus shale formation. She declined to say how much money the association received.

"It's a 200-acre property, but it's filled with burials," she said. "I believe they need five acres minimum to drill. It's not there."

McGannon said no drilling is occurring in any of the association's cemeteries but acknowledged that drilling could begin at any time under the lease. With horizontal drilling, a rig could be located at the edge of a cemetery or on property near it to access the shale layer about a mile below the surface.

"If and when the company would express any interest in drilling, the property owner is in complete control of the location of the drilling activity," McGannon said. "There certainly wouldn't be any interference with where active burials are occurring."

Huntley & Huntley President Keith Mangini called Calvary "the least likely to be drilled."

"It lacks accessibility and pipeline infrastructure to market the gas produced from the property, which is an inherent characteristic of most properties located within the city of Pittsburgh."

The lease also covers cemeteries in Lawrenceville, Hazelwood, Braddock Hills, Ross, Moon, Penn Hills, Monroeville, Shaler, Robinson, Richland, Pine and Peters, real estate records show. Calvary is the largest of the cemeteries, closely followed by the 195-acre Queen of Heaven Cemetery in Peters and the 186-acre Good Shepherd Cemetery in Monroeville.

"The other diocese properties offered us the possibility to drill horizontally beneath the tracts from adjoining leases without encroaching on the surface," Mangini said.

A study released this week shows drilling companies signed leases for 2,600 pieces of land in Allegheny County, mostly outside city limits. The Marcellus Shale Coalition said the companies are far from starting any drilling in the city. The coalition's president, Kathryn Klaber, said Shields' proposed ban could set a "dangerous precedent" and overlooks potential economic benefits.

But it has supporters.

"They have cemeteries signed on for Christ's sake. It's disgusting is what it is," said Elizabeth Schneider, an anti-drilling activist from Lincoln Place, where drilling companies have leases on more than 70 properties. "It's very sacrilegious."

Bishop David Zubik and the Rev. Ronald Lengwin, spokesman for the diocese, could not be reached for comment.

Ridge said Marcellus gas extraction could transform Pennsylvania, but needs to be done in a way that protects the environment.

"We don't want to repeat the mistakes we made in the past with the coal industry and with clear-cutting," Ridge said in his first public speech since the coalition hired his Washington-based consulting company for $75,000 a month to help with public outreach, education and coalition building.

The state Department of Environmental Protection yesterday levied a $97,350 fine against Atlas Resources LLC, a subsidiary of Moon-based Atlas Energy Inc., for its Marcellus drilling operations. The company allowed diluted wastewater from a Washington County gas well to overfill its containment pit in December and contaminate a tributary of Dunkle Run in Hopewell, according to the DEP.

The company blamed the failure on a contractor's water pump. The DEP fined Atlas $85,000 in January for infractions at 13 natural gas well sites in Fayette, Washington and Greene counties. The southwest region's biggest-ever fine was $141,175, against Range Resources Corp. for another spill in Hopewell.

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