Official asks Allegheny County to put off parks drilling

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Arguing that keeping parkland pristine should be a top priority, an Allegheny County councilwoman called Friday for a three-year moratorium on drilling in county parks, a proposal that could derail still-developing plans.

In an ordinance due to debut at Tuesday's council meeting, Barbara Daly Danko, D-Regent Square, is asking the county to hold off on drilling in parks until 2017, when she hopes most of the unanswered questions about the legality and logistics of extracting gas from beneath parkland will be resolved.

"Some people might say this is kicking the can down the road, but I think that's appropriate to do in this case," Ms. Danko said.

"Because drilling is still relatively new in Pennsylvania, and there are still state laws and regulations that are working their way through the system, I think it behooves us to put a three-year hold on it."

In doing so, she risks the ire of Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald, a firm advocate for drilling who has advanced plans to harvest natural gas beneath Deer Lakes Park in Frazer.

Once a firm political ally of Ms. Danko's, Mr. Fitzgerald blasted her proposal Friday afternoon, saying a moratorium could seriously sour the county's chance to make money from natural gas drilling.

"Why should we be sending a signal that's going to hurt our workers -- all of our trades, and our restaurants and our hotels?" he said.

"I was not given any indication of this. We got blindsided by this."

At immediate issue is the Deer Lakes plan, which was announced earlier this summer and could bring the county millions.

Much of the land surrounding the park has already been leased to energy giant Range Resources, and the company has pitched Mr. Fitzgerald on including county property in any nearby drilling.

The plan quickly drew criticism from local activists, who have turned out en masse to speak at the past two county council meetings.

Some are now cautiously optimistic about Ms. Danko's plan.

Though she hadn't seen the ordinance Friday, South Hills Area Against Dangerous Drilling co-founder Sarah Scholl said she's glad at least one council member has listened to her concerns.

"I love that they're hearing that there's an issue with forging ahead," she said.

"But while I think it's excellent that council is now putting on the brakes and being responsive to the message we've been bringing to them, I would also not want to endorse anything I haven't read."

Ms. Danko says she is not opposed to natural gas drilling.

While she voted earlier this year against drilling at Pittsburgh International Airport, her objection was with the quality of the $500 million contract, not the issue of drilling.

But moving from drilling at the airport, which she termed "an industrial zone," to fracking beneath county parkland is too fast a shift for her taste.

County leaders pitched the airport project as a test run, she said -- and that test hasn't yet begun.

She faces a stiff fight on council.

The councilwoman needs eight votes to pass the bill and two more to override a veto from Mr. Fitzgerald, which he has already pledged to provide.

Early signs aren't promising: John Palmiere, a Democratic councilman from Baldwin Township who originally signed on as the sole co-sponsor to Ms. Danko's bill, quickly withdrew his support within an hour of the proposal going public. He's going on vacation for much of September and doesn't want to be "the center of attention" while away, he said.

And Nick Futules, D-Oakmont, the chairman of the county's parks committee, called the bill "a moot point," with the issue of parkland drilling already on the table with the upcoming Deer Lakes contract.

"If council members don't like it, simply vote no," he said.

The ordinance will likely be assigned to a committee and won't be voted on until at least Sept. 24.


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