About an hour into a public hearing in Findlay on drilling at Pittsburgh International Airport, Thomas Gallant interrupted a presentation by representatives from Consol Energy.
“Obviously, the … elephant in this room is the Greene County fire,” said Mr. Gallant, the chairman of the township’s board of supervisors, who said he wanted to hear more from Consol representatives on safety provisions for drilling plans.
The recent gas fire may have been the elephant, but there were numerous concerns raised Thursday night by Findlay residents, ranging from worries about noise levels to distance of well sites from homes to whether Consol workers will need an FBI clearance if they will be working or perhaps even lodging on airport grounds.
The purpose of the hearing, which drew about 200 residents mostly from Findlay but a few from neighboring Moon, was to allow public comment on Consol Energy’s plan to drill near the airport. A year ago, Consol signed an agreement with Allegheny County to drill for natural gas on county-owned land near the airport.
The county expects to receive about $500 million over 20 years as part of the deal.
Consol’s plan calls for the construction of six well pads, with at least 45 Marcellus Shale wells and three water impoundments.
Joe Zoka, Consol’s general manager for Central Pennsylvania operations, said Consol plans to start construction for its airport operations in the second quarter of this year, with plans to start initial drilling of vertical wells in July.
Representatives of the company were in Findlay on Thursday night for the public hearing, part of the process of securing conditional use permits from Findlay.
Findlay’s planning commission has already given the permits preliminary approval.
Much of the hearing was devoted to giving Consol representatives time to outline their plan and its details, including safety provisions.
Mr. Gallant interjected as Craig Hunter, the safety supervisor for Consol, was describing the company’s safety approach, to ask about the Greene County fire, an issue Findlay residents who testified later in the evening also mentioned.
On Feb. 11 in Dunkard, Greene County, a Marcellus Shale gas well owned by Chevron exploded, igniting flames that, fed by leaking natural gas, persisted for five days. The remains of one worker were found Wednesday at the site.
“We see the Greene County event as a very isolated event,” Mr. Hunter said.
He said the incident, which did not involve Consol, had “no bearing on how we operate and how we proceed.”
Janet Craig, another Findlay supervisor, pressed him on details of how the company would respond, if there was an emergency issue.
Mr. Hunter said the Allegheny County Airport Authority fire squad would be the first responders, but said a finalized safety plan was still being developed and would be in place before work began at the airport.
Safety was the dominant theme among the residents who commented at the hearing.
Over the course of the hearing, residents raised questions about items ranging from water quality to housing values to expected increase in traffic.
Bob Sterner, a 16-year Findlay resident, said the Greene County incident made him believe that “a buffering between residents and drilling pads is needed.”
Ernie Leopold, chairman of the Findlay planning commission, which gave preliminary approval to the Consol permits, said the process had been a thorough one, and said Findlay’s zoning ordinance for drilling is “one of the most strict.”
One resident wanted to know: does Findlay as a township, or the people making its decisions, stand to benefit financially from the drilling?
“We the residents are taking all the risk without the rewards,” said Findlay resident Bill Stout, adding that he was speaking to “implore” township supervisors to make their decisions in a way that upholds the quality of life in Findlay.
Although the drilling will generate well fees for the township, Mr. Gallant said “there is nobody on this board that is getting anything in this process.”
Consol replied to questions raised by residents, with representatives giving more details on issues such as noise and well pad location.
More opportunity for public comment will occur starting today, when Consol and the airport authority release their environmental assessment.
The three-person board of supervisors continued the hearing to March 12, with the option to push it back to March 27, saying they wanted to review the environmental impact and safety reports. The board needs to approve the permits before drilling can begin.
Attorney Blaine Lucas said Consol will do its best to get the safety plan to Findlay supervisors as soon as possible.
Asked whether the continuation of the hearing would affect Consol’s timetable, which includes beginning construction in the second quarter of 2014 and initial drilling in July, Consol spokesman Brian Aiello said the plans “remain on schedule.”
Kaitlynn Riely: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1707. First Published February 20, 2014 11:52 PM