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Council hearing ponders gas drilling pros and cons

| Thursday, July 22, 2010

Allegheny County Council joined state and federal agencies in taking measure of the pros and cons of Marcellus Shale gas drilling.

"We have to accept there is risk in everything we do," Councilman Michael Finnerty, D-Scott Township, said during Wednesday's courthouse hearing.

"We need to do this safely," Councilman Bob Macey, D-West Mifflin, said.

Water quality and jobs were major topics in the first 100 minutes of a hearing conducted by council president Rich Fitzgerald, D-Squirrel Hill. A panel of industry, environmental and state experts faced eight councilors.

Industry spokesmen said they seek to hire Pennsylvanians, but James Kunz of Operating Engineers Local 66 said, "Because the fields in Texas have slowed down, we're seeing more and more contractors coming to Pennsylvania."

Other questions focused on last year's increase of total dissolved solids or TDS in the Monongahela River.

"We did a fairly exhaustive study," Carl Carlson of Range Resources said. "(It) determined that less than 7 percent (of the TDS problem) was sourced from oil and gas drainage."

"A large part of the issue on the Monongahela River are discharges from abandoned (coal) mines," state Department of Environmental Protection Deputy Secretary of Mineral Resources Scott Roberts said by phone from Harrisburg. "We have revised our (TDS) standards (for drinking water) to 500 milligrams per liter."

A public airing followed, with many of the 30 signed up giving reasons to slow down or even stop drilling.

In Pittsburgh's 31st Ward, resident Elizabeth Schneider said 80 leases were signed by her neighbors for "a few dollars (and) very little information" before her Lincoln Place Action Group could stop them.

Schneider endorsed Pittsburgh city council's resolution calling for a year-long statewide moratorium on gas drilling.

A doctor who followed Schneider questioned why public health experts were not invited to testify. During the hearing, Councilman Vince Gastgeb, R-Bethel Park, questioned how much of a role Allegheny County Health Department might have in enforcing gas regulations.

Joe Osborne of the Group Against Smog and Pollution said the air quality impact of oil and gas drilling could be "massive" because of "volative organic compounds" released into the atmosphere.

Fitzgerald kept the proceedings under control threatening to clear the crowded meeting room of spectators when someone heckled gas industry spokesmen with a comparison to "BP in the gulf."

Finnerty quieted a round of applause with a reminder that "we're here to have a dialogue."

Meanwhile, the state Environmental Quality Board is holding hearings on proposed new regulations for casing and cementing oil and gas wells for safety and preventing water contamination. One will be tonight at 7 at the state Department of Environmental Protection Southwest Regional Office along Waterfront Drive near the 31st Street Bridge in the Washington's Landing section of Pittsburgh.

As it coincides with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's hearing tonight at 6 at the Southpointe Hilton Garden Inn near Canonsburg, the state board also will hold a hearing on its proposed regulations Monday at 7, also at the DEP Southwest Regional Office. EQB also will accept written comments through Aug. 9.

The EPA hearings, also held in Fort Worth, Texas, and Denver, Colo., with another next month in Binghamton, N.Y., are for public input as EPA researches the impact on water quality and public health of hydraulic fracturing used in extracting gas from shale.

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