Murrysville residents may decide whether to allow gas drilling under municipal park

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Murrysville officials may let residents decide whether to allow gas drilling under the municipal park. 

In February, council agreed to seek bids for drilling rights under Murrysville Community Park. The action allows residents to bring the question of drilling in the park to the ballot in November.

To get the issue up for a Election Day vote, residents now need to get approximately 3,000 signatures on petitions sent to the Westmoreland County Election Bureau.

The matter came up for discussion at a meeting in January after Murrysville received an offer from Huntley and Huntley Inc. of Monroeville to purchase the subsurface mineral rights to approximately 260 acres of the park. The firm is a gas and oil development company.

Leasing the drilling rights to the park could bring the municipality up to $1 million, said Jim Morrison, the community's chief administrator. In addition, annual royalties on the profits could reach millions more over the course of a multiyear lease.

Murrysville council plans to hold a series of public educational meetings this month and next on the laws and practices related to gas extraction. Dates have not yet been set for the meetings. 

But council members began to field questions at last week's meeting, as residents sought to learn more.

Councilman David Perry, an environmental geologist, provided additional information in answer to a query about ensuring quality of the air. “Air quality is very difficult to control. We have a local ordinance and we have regulated noise levels and other things in our control. People don’t realize how disruptive the drilling process is. There is an 18-month schedule of 24/7 trucks and noise. Millions of gallons of water are required for each well and there can be six to 10 wells per site.

“But we are all in the same boat. Until the state regulations are set, there is very little municipalities can do.” Mr. Perry said, referring to recent changes in state law that regulates drilling operations.

In December, the state Supreme Court overturned portions of Act 13 — the Pennsylvania law regulating gas and oil drilling — and remanded it to lower courts for further review. Act 13 was adopted in February 2012. The section empowering state laws to pre-empt local zoning laws was struck down, and another section requiring local governments to allow oil and gas development in all zoning areas was also overturned. As a result, the rules by which drillers and the public coexist are not yet set in stone.

Resident Chet Smolenski asked council if the time was right to revisit the local law, in light of the state Supreme Court ruling.

“I don’t think people know how it pains me to live with inadequate site distances,” replied Mr. Perry. “The state had said 200 feet and we were really pushy saying 600 feet. ... With the overturning of Act 13, it’s a new ballgame. There is a new group coming together to look at our ordinance.” Murrysville has required that wells be at least 600 feet from existing buildings.

Tim Means, freelance writer:

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