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Whitehall Mayor Leads Conversation on Marcellus Drilling

After doing personal research on the topic, Mayor Nowalk met with community members to discuss how drilling for natural gas may or may not impact Whitehall Borough.

Whitehall Mayor Leads Conversation on Marcellus Drilling Whitehall Mayor Leads Conversation on Marcellus Drilling Whitehall Mayor Leads Conversation on Marcellus Drilling Whitehall Mayor Leads Conversation on Marcellus Drilling

The hosted a "community conversation" led by Mayor James F. Nowalk on Thursday. The topic for the evening was Marcellus Shale drilling.

Background to the Issue

Nowalk explained to the community how he had been unaware of the drilling's potential issues until Harold Berkoben, a member of the Whitehall Borough Council, had urged him to "be proactive." This led Nowalk to attend a public hearing on Marcellus Shale on Nov. 17, 2010.

"In the course of the meeting, and after hearing some of the comments of others, I formed some opinions of my own," Nowalk said, "and I was in disagreement with the council."

This led Nowalk to do some personal research into Marcellus Shale, which included traveling to drill sites and studying local, state and national laws on the topic.

The Drill Process

Based on his study, Nowalk described what residents might expect if Marcellus Shale drilling were to happen in their community:

  1. "Lots of trucks," Nowalk said. "It takes 1,150 truck trips—and that's just to set up the site."
  2. Vertical drilling to get down to the level of the gas, which can be from 5,000 to 8,000 feet.
  3. The horizontal drill is a new technology, allowing gas companies to drill a well miles away from the gas source.
  4. A "perforation gun" with electrical charges is then used below ground to put small holes into the shale.
  5. Around 4 million gallons of water, chemicals and sand are then sent down to hold the cracks in place.
  6. A "fracking pond" then holds the polluted water after it comes back up out of the well.
  7. "Gas then comes out in volumes difficult to manage," Nowalk said, as he passed around pictures of a "flaring" technique, where excess gas is burned.
  8. Once extracted, the gas must then be transported to compression sites by truck.

Testimony from Neighbors

Nowalk traveled to drill sites to speak with people who lived next door to the activity. One woman he spoke with described "blue film on the windows, truck traffic all night, noise all night and the smell of gas."

Of most concern to those attending the meeting, Nowalk shared how the value of the woman's house decreased by $75,000. He also learned that some residents had been made to sign a non-disclosure agreement, prohibiting them from talking with him about the issue.

Legal Concerns

"There is no one in the government protecting you," Nowalk said to the audience, citing laws from the federal to the local level that either protect or exempt Marcellus Shale drilling from being prohibited or over-regulated.

"We think of the  Environmental Protection Agency as protecting us," Nowalk said, reading from the  Safe Drinking Water Act , which puts controls on chemicals going into the ground during drilling.

"But in 2005, there was an amendment which excluded hydraulic fracking from the act," Nowalk said, "so the federal EPA has no jurisdiction in regard to (what drillers put into the ground)."

"Is there any bill currently in the Senate to make them tell us what they are putting in the water?" asked Erma Henry from Whitehall's Steeplechase Court.

Philip Lahr, a Whitehall Council member in attendance, shared that the Senate does have a  FRAC (Fracturing Responsibility and Awareness of Chemicals) Act , sponsored by  U.S. Sen. Robert P. Casey Jr.

"The House also has a bill, but it has no Pennsylvania co-sponsorship," Lahr said, urging those present to talk with their representatives.

Nowalk explained that local governments, while permitted to regulate drilling, are "preempted" by the Pennsylvania Oil and Gas Act of 1984 from being allowed to prohibit drilling. He noted that Pittsburgh, and other municipalities are currently attempting to prohibit drilling based on constitutional authority.

Reading from Article 1, Section 27 of the Pennsylvania Constitution, Nowalk said, "The people have a right to clean air, pure water, and to the preservation of the natural, scenic, historic and esthetic values of the environment.

"However," Nowalk warned, "if the constitutional argument fails, you have no way to regulate. So there's risk involved."

As an alternative, the Whitehall Council decided to write a regulation specifically regarding any potential drilling.

"I think the (borough's) solicitor (Irving Firman) wrote a good law within the areas we are able to regulate," Nowalk said.

Those areas include noise, lighting, dust control and hours of operation.

"When I was at a conference recently," Lahr said, "Whitehall Borough was the only borough with an ordinance against Marcellus Shale (drilling)."

Possible Sites

Nowalk said that there are a limited number of sites within Whitehall where there is enough land to drill.

"I have received a letter from the ," Nowalk said, "and you don't have to worry about anything happening there."

Another possibility is Duquesne Light property, but it seems unlikely to Nowalk that gas drilling could "coexist with electrical transformers."

"That leaves one other area," Nowalk said, alluding to the , which sold its drilling rights in 2008.

"It Will Never Happen"

During audience comments-and-questions time, Adrian Markocic of claimed that "there's never going to be drilling in Whitehall, Baldwin or any of the surrounding communities."

Markocic explained how, in order to get the gas to refinement facilities, "you would have to transport 12 million cubic feet of gas each day. At that point, it's just not profitable."

When asked why a drilling company would then buy drilling rights at the country club, Markocic said that it was only to "build their company portfolio."

"It doesn't matter that you can't drill there," Markocic said, explaining that it looks good on Wall Street.

As to the content of the chemicals used in the fracking process, Markocic said, "They're all listed on our site." Markocic noted that he is a public-affairs specialist for Range Resources, an energy company that drills for Marcellus Shale gas.

"That's a little like asking you to believe me when I tell you my weight," said a woman from the audience.

Community Connections

People from surrounding communities were also present at the meeting, including Anita Barkin, a public health professional from Jefferson Hills Borough.

"We can't look at this as isolated communities," Barkin said. "They have to get to Jefferson Hills somehow."

Barkin and others urged Whitehall residents to consider their fellow citizens in neighboring communities where drilling is more likely, pointing to the pollution of rivers as a result of drilling.

"The Monongahela River is also a distressed river," Barkin said. "We are really in harm's way."

After the meeting, Aaron Booz and Sarah Scholl, two friends concerned about the issue, handed out fliers to attendees and encouraged them to sign up for an email list.

"In many communities, there are groups being formed," Scholl said. "At this point, we're not a group. We just want to provide some networking for people to get access to the laws and information."

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