Protect Our Parks, group opposed to drilling, made itself seen, heard

Members highly visible in bright green scarves

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They were there long before the topic of drilling for natural gas beneath Deer Lakes Park even made it to Allegheny County Council's agenda.

In large numbers, and eventually in the bright green scarves that became their signature, members of the group Protect Our Parks marched to a podium in the Allegheny County Courthouse, urging council to vote no on a proposal to lease the gas rights beneath the park.

Their monthslong odyssey closed a chapter last week, when nine council members voted yes, five voted no and one abstained on a resolution that prompted a loud and raucous outcry from some members of the parks group, many of whom shouted "shame" after the vote.

Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald on Monday signed the legislation and said the county will enter into a lease with Range Resources that will yield a $4.7 million bonus payment, $3 million to a parks improvement fund and 18 percent in royalties in exchange for giving Range the rights to extract the gas beneath the park.

For Protect Our Parks members, had all the time and effort and late nights been worth it?

"Absolutely," said Terri Supowitz of Wilkinsburg.

"We've absolutely had an effect here," said Mel Packer, a Point Breeze member of the group. "We've put it on the agenda. Not just the county council agenda -- on the public agenda."

Although the vote is over, members said the work of Protect Our Parks is not. The group plans to meet today to discuss issues, including whether to continue attending council meetings and the possibility of legal action.

"This is definitely not over," Ms. Supowitz said.

The movement that led to the group's formation began in 2010, when anti-fracking activism grew surrounding the city of Pittsburgh's ban on the practice, Mr. Packer said. About a year ago, Mr. Fitzgerald told council that the county would seek bids to drill beneath Deer Lakes Park.

What emerged after that announcement was Protect Our Parks, a group of individuals, existing environmental organizations and grass-roots groups. Members began attending county council's twice-monthly meetings starting around August, with a core group of a few dozen.

The three-year moratorium on drilling in county parks proposed in September by Councilwoman Barbara Daly Danko, D-Regent Square, was "something to rally around," Mr. Packer said. The moratorium was unsuccessful, and with the Deer Lakes Park proposal still on the table, members of the group continued to attend council meetings, with some gathering to organize on Saturday mornings in East Liberty.

"It's a huge time commitment," said Pia Colucci, a Shadyside real estate agent, who said she got involved late last summer because she was concerned about fracking's environmental effects.

In January, when council still did not have a Deer Lakes plan to consider, someone suggested group members wear pins to identify themselves, Ms. Colucci said. She suggested scarves: bright green ones. Ms. Colucci said she bought the fabric and used fabric paint to write "Protect Our Parks" and "No Fracking" on them. For months, members wore them.

"It was something they could not not see from the dais," she said.

Once Mr. Fitzgerald announced the proposed deal with Range in March, the amount of public comment about the proposal increased dramatically.

It came from not only people who were against the plan but also those in favor of it, who argued the proposal was safe and would be good for the parks and the economy.

By the time of the vote, Ms. Danko said, council had heard from nearly 200 individuals about the plan.

One of the reasons she introduced her moratorium legislation was to push for public discussion, she said.

"They've made sure there's a public discussion," she said of Protect Our Parks.

Councilman Jim Ellenbogen, D-Banksville, said he appreciated the information he had received from Protect Our Parks members and that he had read and studied what they sent him. He voted yes to the proposal, he said, because he believed it would make drilling operations near Deer Lakes Park safer.

Mr. Ellenbogen said he was displeased by the behavior of some drilling opponents, especially the yelling after the vote.

"That should not have happened," he said.


Kaitlynn Riely: kriely@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1707.

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