Council puts brakes on drilling beneath Murrysville Community Park

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Gas reserves have been trapped in shale thousands of feet beneath Murrysville Community Park for millions of years, and it looks as though they will be there a little longer. No gas drilling will be done in the near future in Murrysville — or at least not until revisions to the local drilling ordinance are completed.

Council last week rejected an ordinance that would have permitted administrators to create a bid specification package for drilling under Murrysville Community Park. At the same time, council also rejected a proposal from Monroeville-based drilling company Huntley & Huntley, which had submitted an offer in January to lease the subsurface mineral rights to the park.

While the potential revenue is estimated at millions of dollars, the proposal sparked questions of how to regulate drilling operations in the park as well as throughout the municipality. Since February, a public debate about the issue has been heard at council meetings and in online discussions. On April 29, an educational outreach session was held at the municipal building with experts answering questions about local and state drilling regulations.

Council’s initial approach was to have Murrysville residents petition Westmoreland County to put the issue on the ballot in the fall election as a referendum question. But some confusion about the referendum process and recent changes to the state drilling law, Act 13, stood in the way. Last month, council appointed a task force to review the municipality’s gas drilling ordinance and hired attorney Bill Sittig as legal counsel for the process. According to chief administrator Jim Morrison, the pending status of the ordinance means that no applications for drilling will be accepted, whether on private or public property, until a new law is approved.

“The worst thing we can do is fail to plan and be prepared,” Mr. Morrison said. “This is a process. The ordinance we developed three years ago was used as the basis for the legal opposition to Act 13. The reason we set out to do the referendum was to get a chip in the game. We felt we could raise the standards and requirements through negotiations with the driller. By revisiting our ordinance, we can address many of the same things.”

Members of the audience voiced their opposition to shale fracking and urged council not to approve the creation of specifications for drilling in the park.

Robert Brown of Evans Road warned about the potential health risks associated with fracking and told of his personal experience as a cancer survivor.

“As a teenager, I took a trip [to New Jersey] with some friends and we all went swimming. When we got out of the water, our skin was stained orange. Four of us got cancer later in life, and I always wondered if it was because of that experience,” he said. “The contents of fracking water are undisclosed. If fracking is allowed in Murrysville and members of your family got cancer, wouldn’t you wonder?”

Eleanor Sharp of Shady Drive noted that some communities in Pennsylvania, Maryland and New York have successfully enacted moratoriums on fracking based on the health risks associated with it. She urged council to enact a moratorium on fracking, saying it is unsafe.

Council President Joan Kearns made it clear that no decisions on drilling will be made until the local law has been revised.

“Currently, we’re not going to be entertaining any offers,” she said, to applause from the audience. “This is an emotional issue and a scary issue for many. We have some of the smartest minds around to work through it. Our ordinance is in pending status, which means nothing will go forward in the near future.”

The ordinance was rejected by a 6-1 vote, with Councilman Loren Kase casting the dissenting vote.

Tim Means, freelance writer:

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