Fayette radio host says shale criticism led to firing

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Controversies over Marcellus Shale drilling have shaken up the airwaves in Fayette County.

A longtime conservative radio host on WMBS in Uniontown claims he was fired last month over views aired on his show that criticized the health and environmental impact of natural gas drilling in the area.

Robert Foltz, host of the show "Let's Talk" for 10 years, said he was terminated on April 20, after a guest on his show, Dan Bailey, president of the board of directors of the Carmichaels Municipal Authority, said that bromine, a byproduct of natural gas drilling, had contaminated the area's public water supply.

The station's general manager, Brian Mroziak, at first declined to comment on the reasons for Mr. Foltz's departure, saying he could not discuss personnel matters.

The station's Facebook page, however, described Mr. Foltz's departure as a "leave of absence."

But Mr. Foltz said he never asked for a leave of absence from the show.

Minutes after the April 20 program aired he received a letter signed by Mr. Mroziak and Robert Pritts, president and owner of the Fayette Broadcasting Corp., which owns the station.

"This letter acknowledges that, by mutual agreement, you have agreed to terminate your at-will status with Fayette Broadcasting Co. Inc," according to the letter. At-will agreements allow employers to terminate employees legally at any time.

"Also," the letter continued, "by your choice, you have decided to let your listeners know ... that you have elected to 'take a personal leave of absence' from WMBS Radio."

Station managers replaced Mr. Foltz with Mark Rafail, an alternate on the Fayette County Zoning Hearing Board, which, among its duties, approves or rejects drilling permits based on whether they meet the zoning code.

"It amazes me that the station took this stance," Mr. Foltz said last week. "It was a combination of politics and [comments on] the drilling," that forced him out, he said.

Mr. Mroziak disagreed. "The natural gas stuff had absolutely nothing to do with Bob being let go," he said.

The station is one of a few sources of local information in rural Fayette County where, according to a study released by PathWays PA in 2009 in partnership with the Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry, 35 percent of the county's families could be categorized as "economically distressed."

The natural gas industry has already invested millions of dollars in the county, one of the more active counties for drilling in the state, where 169 permits for drilling were signed in 2009 and 2010.

Just a month before Mr. Foltz's hosting ended, the station began airing a weekly, two-hour show called "Natural Gas Matters" on Fridays in the slot following the show Mr. Foltz used to host. The show answers listeners' questions about Marcellus drilling. Its major sponsors are McDonald Land Services, which surveys land for drilling companies, and National Brokerage, a financial services firm that helps landowners manage leases.

The show's hosts "talk about the positive impact of natural gas, the jobs it creates," Mr. Mroziak said. "They let people know what they can do with their newfound wells."

On the first episode of "Natural Gas Matters," host Jason Miller said, "We're pro-industry. Just so you know. [Co-host] Chris and I are pro-industry," according to online audio files of the show.

"We both get paychecks from gas companies," explained Chris Whinery, the show's other host.

Mr. Mroziak says the show is a moneymaker, popular with those who fund it as well as listeners. "We have a lot of nice sponsors lined up for the show." He declined to say how much revenue it brings in for the station.

Mr. Foltz's show often addressed potential environmental and health effects of the drilling prevalent in Fayette County.

On the April 20 show, Mr. Bailey, the Carmichaels municipal authority president, explained to listeners that increasing levels of trihalomethanes have been measured in the borough's public water supply since late 2010. Trihalomethanes, which are possible carcinogens, are formed when chlorine at water treatment plants and organic material mix with bromine, a byproduct of drilling through the hydraulic fracturing process.

Mr. Foltz said these segments airing environmental concerns were popular. "Oh, I was loaded with calls, start to finish," he said.

A repeat guest on Mr. Foltz's show was Marigrace Butella, a tax collector in Dunbar who had taken an interest in the environmental and health impacts of drilling. She belongs to a local chapter of the Izaak Walton League of America, a national nonprofit active in environmental conservation efforts, and the Mountain Watershed Association.

Sometimes, Ms. Butella brought in constituents who had health problems they believed to be the result of nearby drilling. She and Mr. Foltz also made calls to the office of Rep. Camille "Bud" George, D-Clearfield, where Matthew Maciorkoski, cq executive director of the House Environmental Resources and Energy Committee, would call back to update them and the show's listeners on developments in state policy regarding the drilling.

"I was impressed that they had a forum for public discourse," Mr. Maciorkoski said of the show.

"We're an economically disadvantaged area," Ms. Butella said. "There's a lot of farmland. When these people come in and they offer people thousands of dollars [to have wells on their property], they just can't refuse it. I felt that the radio station was a good way to get information out."

Delma Burns, a frequent listener to Mr. Foltz's show who has lived in Lake Lynn for 61 years, agreed. "He was quite popular in the area," she said of Mr. Foltz. "He covered a lot of problems and would let people call in with whatever their concerns were. That was one venue that we had that we don't really have anymore."

Mr. Foltz said he is looking for another job in radio journalism.


Correction/Clarification: (Published June 2, 2011) Mark Rafail is an alternate on the Fayette County Zoning Hearing Board, which approves or rejects drilling permits based on whether they meet the zoning code. The board's role was not clear in a story Monday about radio host Robert Foltz, who claims he was fired over views on his show that criticized the health impact of natural gas drilling. Mr. Rafail replaced Mr. Foltz on the show.

Jacqueline Feldman: jfeldman@post-gazette.com ; 412-263-1964.


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