Allegheny County to monitor air in drilling near airport

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The first big Marcellus Shale gas development project in Allegheny County, on county-owned land near Pittsburgh International Airport, will get special air pollution monitoring attention from the Allegheny County Health Department before and after the drilling begins.

The county announced Monday that it will soon begin air quality monitoring on more than 9,000 acres in Findlay where Consol Energy Inc. plans to drill 47 shale gas wells and construct 17 miles of gas collection lines and 12 miles of water supply lines.

Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald, who has been a shale gas development supporter, requested the pre- and post-drilling monitoring after hearing the concerns of residents of the area and state Sen. Matt Smith, D-Mt. Lebanon, and state Rep. Mark Mustio, R-Moon.

"We are extremely confident that our partner in this project, Consol Energy, will conduct the drilling and extraction in a safe and environmentally responsible manner," Mr. Fitzgerald said in a news release. "That being said, this is also the first project of this size in Allegheny County and we want to ensure that this is done in a health-conscious way."

Mr. Fitzgerald said Mr. Smith recommended the monitoring plan and it is "a proactive way to ensure the air quality in the area of the project."

Mr. Smith said he and Mr. Mustio want to make sure that the concerns of their constituents are addressed and energy exploration "is done in the most responsible way."

The county, which signed a shale gas development lease with Consol a year ago, expects to receive an estimated $500 million over 20 years. Consol expects to extract "dry" natural gas, mostly methane, and so-called "wet" gases, which include butane and ethane compounds that are valuable in the plastics processing industry and bring higher prices.

Kate O'Donovan, a spokeswoman for Consol, said the company wasn't aware of the county air monitoring plans. "It's something we'll have to look into," she said.

According to the county, Consol will begin development of drilling pads, impoundments and pipelines in the second quarter of 2014, with drilling on the first two wells in July.

"This project represents the first large-scale development of a wet gas field in Allegheny County," said Jim Thompson, the Health Department's deputy director of environmental health. "... we will conduct an air monitoring study in a community near to the project to make certain there are no unforeseen problems."

Marcellus Shale gas drilling operations and gas compressor stations release tons of nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds into the air annually, although NOX emissions have declined in Pennsylvania due to the shutdown of several coal-burning power plants.

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, even short-term exposure to nitrogen oxides can impair respiratory health, causing throat and lung inflammation and exacerbating asthma. It can also lead to higher concentrations of airborne particulate matter.

Don Hopey: or 412-263-1983.

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