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Westylvania: Drilling Marcellus' middle ground

| Thursday, July 21, 2011

There is no bigger fan of the Allegheny Mountains' cultural and natural heritage than PJ Piccirillo — at least that I've encountered.

A resident of Brockport in a blissful pocket of Pennsylvania that contains the corners of Clearfield, Elk and Jefferson counties, PJ is a novelist ("Heartwood") and lecturer whose passion — both professionally and personally — is the Alleghenies. Having spent four years in Loretto, earning a bachelor of arts in English at St. Francis University, he knows our ridges as well.

But in a recent exchange of e-mails, PJ informed me that there's something amiss with Brockport's bliss: Marcellus shale drilling in sensitive areas, which has been underway there for a couple of years now.

Leading a local fight to keep a driller from fracking within 700 feet of a municipal water supply, PJ was less than impressed with my suggestion that there should be ways to work with the Marcellus drilling industry that lead to needed economic development yet safeguard the environment.

"No offense, but you sound there too much like those infomercials the industry keeps sneaking onto the TV and into the papers," responded PJ. "I remain skeptical about who, in the long run, will benefit from this 'healthier economy.' Our grandparents broke their backs and polluted their lungs in mines that today spill red water into our streams. While the people they worked for left all their money at death to have buildings named after them at universities."

Both PJ and I love Pennsylvania's Alleghenies. As writers who specialize in this topic, our research of the region's history and heritage have framed our perspectives on Marcellus shale development. Yet we differ on our points of view - as do many other thoughtful, caring people.

That's why I'm impressed with a couple of Marcellus tools recently developed by the Pennsylvania Environmental Council (PEC) that are designed to serve everyone. One is a website that organizes the massive amounts of information now available on Marcellus shale topics, and the other is a guide for people who are considering or preparing a property lease.

If you are not familiar with PEC (www.pecpa.org), it's a statewide organization that tries to protect the environment through "innovation, collaboration, education and advocacy." Note that "confrontation" isn't on the list; PEC tries to work with everyone, including the private sector and government as well as communities, groups and individuals.

PEC's new website, called "MarcellusFacts" (www.marcellusfacts.org), performs the simple but important service of pulling together articles, blogs, columns and other sources of information - representing all points of view - onto one page.

On July 3, for example:

• A Washington, D.C.-based organization called "Press Action" was publishing a decidedly anti-drilling item "The Great Natural Gas Swindle."

• "Natural gas discoveries mean growth ahead in the Northeast," according to the Houston (TX) Chronicle, which reported that Shell Oil Company is planning a petrochemical complex somewhere within the Marcellus shale region.

• And Penn State Cooperative Extension was offering information of interest to municipalities, "Posting and Bonding Local Roads and Other Considerations."

MarcellusFacts should be a valuable tool for everyone. While advocates will easily find information supporting their positions, those still forming points of view should find a variety of material, exploring the many facets of this issue.

If you are thinking about leasing some land to gas drillers, PEC's "Marcellus Shale Lease Guide" should be helpful. The guide identifies important environmental issues that can be dealt with in the lease and shows how other leases have handled such issues. For more information, visit www.pagreenlease.org.

These new PEC resources are free, available to all and good examples of what can emerge from the middle ground of the Marcellus debate. They also should provide PJ and me with all kinds of new facts and perspectives to explore and debate.

Dave Hurst has written a book on our region's heritage, titled "Pennsylvania's Allegheny Mountains: The First Frontier." To respond to this column or get more information on the book visit www.hurstmediaworks.com.

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