Indiana, PA - Indiana County

Opponents ask board to deny drilling permit

by SAM KUSIC skusic@indianagazette.net on July 27, 2011 3:00 AM

A group of neighbors and environmentally minded residents again urged the Indiana County Zoning Hearing Board to deny a permit for a company planning to drill a vertical shale-gas well near Yellow Creek State Park.

During a hearing Tuesday evening, members of the Coalition for a Healthy County argued that Kittanning-based MDS Energy can't be trusted to safely sink and fracture the well, to be located off Ray Road in Cherryhill Township, about 2,400 feet from Yellow Creek Lake's northern shore.

Aside from being a popular spot for outdoor recreation, Yellow Creek Lake and its streams are the source of water for the Central Indiana County Water Authority.

Daniel Perlongo, a coalition member and a Ray Road resident, told the board in written testimony that MDS' past record with the state Department of Environmental Protection doesn't bode well, noting that the agency cited MDS 20 times over the past three years and fined the company more than $63,000, based on online DEP reports.

"MDS Energy's field practice record clearly demonstrates that they cannot adequately address the seven concerns cited by the zoning board in order to satisfy the general condition … that 'the public health, safety and welfare' of the conservation zone will be protected," Perlongo wrote.

"In fact, MDS Energy's field practice shows a record of numerous violations, many as recent as March 2011, indicating that they have repeatedly used unsafe and damaging procedures in their drilling operations."

But MDS' land agent and public liaison, Mike Knapp, president of Knapp Acquisitions & Production, defended MDS' record. While he acknowledged the past citations, he said many were administrative in nature.

He said the violations also were largely related to sedimentation and erosion control, resulting after inspectors arrived on site after rainstorms caused some runoff from access roads.

Thomas J. Smith, former coal mine operator and chairman of the Indiana Armstrong Tea Party Patriots said that it's not surprising that MDS has a record with DEP. After all, he said, all companies having contact with the agency are fined at one point or another.

"It's impossible not to get a violation," he said. "How do you think they get funded?"

This is the company's second time before the board as it seeks a special use permit under the county's Special Recreation and Conservation Zoning Ordinance, which establishes special conservation zones around county parks to protect them from detrimental land uses and industrial encroachment.

Gas well drilling is a permitted activity in the conservation zones, but only with the hearing board's approval. But the criticism of the ordinance has been that it was written with conventional wells in mind, not the deeper, more disruptive, shale-gas wells, which weren't on the horizon at the time.

The board had rejected MDS initial application on grounds that the company hadn't done enough to show how it would protect public health and safety. However, it invited them to resubmit a revised application, one that more fully addressed certain concerns.

As a result, the company said it revised its plans to conform with a more stringent set of state environmental rules related to drilling in what are deemed high-quality watersheds. For the state's purposes, Yellow Creek is not considered a high-quality watershed, Knapp said. But still, the company plans to act as if it is, he said.

Among other measures, Knapp said the company redesigned the well pad so that it slopes away from Yellow Creek Lake and toward diversion channels leading to holding ponds with pumps stationed at the ready. Knapp also said the company plans to build a 2-foot-tall earthen mound around the site.

And last night he told the board that MDS has asked its supplier of hydraulic fracturing chemicals to redesign the mixture to be used on the well to make it as "green" as possible.

To that end, representatives from the supplier, Kroff Well Services Inc., of Pittsburgh, said they substituted an anticorrosive agent with instant coffee and decided against using a chemical soap that's often used in the fracturing process.

Kroff Well's general manager Dave Grottenthaler also testified that other chemicals, given their concentrations and makeups, are safe, noting that they have been used by other industries, including municipal water plants, for decades. And, he added, regularly discharged into waterways without effect.

The board also heard from Jim Ray, the owner of the property on which MDS intends to drill. He asked the board to approve the permit because MDS has sufficiently addressed public concerns. He said he is counting on the income his land lease would provide.

Ray also said that if the board does not approve the permit, it would amount to a taking through eminent domain, and therefore, he is due compensation for the value of the gas under his land.

The board did not make a decision on Tuesday. It intends to review testimony and is to return a decision within 45 days.

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