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Saturday, October 1, 2011

Gas well debate over Indiana County drill site takes a violent turn

Sunday, September 25, 2011
After a career working in various places around the country, Jim Ray retired two years ago to his family's farm in Penn Run, Indiana County, to help care for his wife's parents and return to his rural roots.
"I thought it would be a quiet life," said Mr. Ray, who worked for Marriott in its food service division for 30 years.
Since his family signed a lease to have a Marcellus Shale well drilled near his home earlier this year, it has been anything but quiet.
First, a neighbor complained in March on the first day the driller, MDS Energy of Kittanning, started cutting into the ground. The company got 380 feet into the ground before Indiana County shut it down, informing MDS that the site was within the "conservation zone" around the 2,900-acre Yellow Creek State Park and needed a special use permit.

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The ensuing debate that has raged in the county ever since "has been bigger than anything I've seen," said Indiana County zoning officer George Urban, "even bigger than the debate over allowing mining in the conservation zone" in 2003.
That issue resulted in dozens of meetings, letters to the editor and a petition that sought to stop the drilling.
The debate took a nasty turn last week when MDS employees found six shotgun blasts that were fired into the plastic lining of the drill cuttings pit on the well site -- which is just a short distance from the Rays' home. Company officials say it will cost $3,500 to replace the liner.
The timing of the rare act of Marcellus Shale-related vandalism -- coming less than two weeks after Indiana County granted MDS a special use permit to resume drilling and a day after state officials inspected the site -- has Mr. Ray and MDS officials convinced it was meant to send a message.
"The fact that they brought firearms into the equation and it's 100 yards from the landowner's house, we're taking this extremely seriously," said Mike Knapp, owner of Knapp Acquisitions & Production, which acts as the land agent and public relations for MDS. "We take this as a statement of violent intimidation."
As involved as the debate over Marcellus Shale development near Yellow Creek State Park has been the last six months, by all accounts it has been civil.
"We've never even had any protests. So this does come as a surprise," said Gerald Smith, one of the leaders of the group Coalition for a Healthy County, which was formed earlier this year to oppose the drilling.
Though MDS was granted a special use permit, with additional environmental restrictions, the debate over whether drilling of any sort should be allowed near the state and county parks continues, and could result in even more restrictions.
The county stopped MDS from drilling in March because of its unique, 1973 ordinance that created two zones around the state park and its three county parks: a "buffer zone" that bans any drilling and other activities within 500 feet of the parks' borders; and a "conservation zone" that requires a special use permit for drilling and other activities and varies in distance by following drainage areas around the parks.
While many smaller municipalities, like townships and boroughs, have restrictions on where and how drilling can occur, it is believed by everyone involved that Indiana County may be the only county in the state with standing zoning restrictions like these around parks.
The MDS well on the Rays' property sits about 800 feet from the edge of the state park and about 2,500 feet from the shoreline of Yellow Creek Lake, the 700-acre centerpiece of the state park. That puts the well 300 feet outside the county's buffer zone that bans drilling but well within the county's conservation zone.
The lake is a major destination point in the county, attracting about 240,000 visitors last year, including 38,000 people coming just to fish its bass-filled waters, said Ken Sherwood, co-chair of the Friends of Yellow Creek.
"Our interest is to keep the park real visitor friendly and maintain its healthy environment," Mr. Sherwood said of his organization, which formed two years ago when the state was threatening to close it in the wake of budget cuts.
Those efforts are threatened, Mr. Sherwood said, by allowing drilling within the conservation zone.
Mr. Knapp said MDS did the required mineral rights survey work, completed road bonding documents with Cherry Hill Township, and told the state park about its plans, but said no one ever mentioned that its well was in the conservation zone until Mr. Urban showed up in March.
A neighbor called that day to tell the county about the drilling, Mr. Urban said.
That didn't surprise Mr. Ray, who said after MDS sent letters to his neighbors last year informing them that they were going to start drilling, one of them came to his home and complained to him.
Concerned about the possible impact on their water wells, "she didn't want us to drill," said Mr. Ray, who said that neighbor won't talk to him now.
Many other neighbors are involved in the debate now, most of them opposed to allowing any more drilling anywhere near the state park.
Mr. Smith's group has asked the county to consider banning drilling and other activities within the entire conservation zone. That request and the debate over MDS' special use permit caused the county to consider even broader changes to its otherwise limited zoning ordinance.
The difficulty, said Indiana County Commissioner Rodney Ruddock, is to maintain jobs while protecting the environment.
"If we can find a balance there," he said, "that's the decision we'd like to make."
The county is still debating what to do and hopes to decide by November.
In the meantime, MDS has hired nighttime security for its well site, an unfortunate decision, but one Mr. Ray hopes will keep him and his family safe.
"It thought we'd drill a well, have some steady income I could pass on to my heirs and enjoy it out here," he said. "It's just not been as nice and quiet as I hoped."
Sean D. Hamill: shamill@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2579.


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