Large crowd debates Murrysville gas drilling limits

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An overflow crowd of 120-plus packed a Marcellus shale ordinance public hearing in Murrysville last night, seeking information along with sharing opinions about a topic that could affect this Westmoreland County municipality for years to come.

About a dozen residents and experts spoke about the deep-well natural gas drilling that is expected to take place in Murrysville in the near future. It was the third public hearing regarding the drafted ordinance.

The 30-page bill is available on the municipality's web site; www.murrysville.com

"Remember, this is a living, breathing document," said council president Joan Kearns. "As we go forward, changes and amendments can and will be made."

A nine-member task force was created to develop the ordinance that is geared to regulating deep well gas drilling along with protecting the community's health and environmental rights.

However, as has been observed throughout the region, municipalities drafting similar ordinances regarding Marcellus shale drilling have been limited in how they can regulate gas companies looking to extract natural gas.

Murrysville chief administrator James Morrison said the committee worked to toe the line between being open to change and keeping the best interests of the community in mind.

"The (Pennsylvania) Oil and Gas Act of 1984 came about when the Marcellus shale was not yet in play," added Mr. Morrison. "It put a set of handcuffs on us on what we can enforce."

Bill Sittig, external legal counsel for the committee, said it would not be prudent for Murrysville to ban or even place a moratorium on Marcellus shale drilling.

"State legislature does not give the authority to local bodies such as this to regulate or enforce laws against this act," he added. "But having open forums such as this allows for you to gain more knowledge. It is an ever-changing process."

Mr. Morrison said the ordinance opens up more than 8,000 acres of the municipality to deep-well drilling, or approximately 40 percent of land within Murrysville's borders. Much of the oil and gas retrieval district lies in the northern and eastern sections of the municipality near state routes 286 and 366, along with the far southern end of the municipality south of Route 22.

"As you can see, we wanted to minimize impact to existing residential developments," he added. "We wanted as much of the impact to be on state-maintained roads as well."

Some residents were not pleased with that decision.

Lynn Full, who lives along Route 366/Greensburg Road near Murrysville's border with Washington Township, said she was disappointed to see the oil and gas recovery district cover her property.

"We do not live in the Outback of Murrysville," she added. "I have a beautiful stream (Little Pucketa Creek) that runs along my property. That is what will be affected when the drilling starts."

Fellow resident Michelle Clark said she wants two parks, Duff and Pleasant Valley, to be protected, even though they, too, lie within the oil and gas recovery district.

"These are the people's parks," she added. "The people of Murrysville should be allowed to have more input in this ordinance."

However, resident Norman Franke spoke out in favor of the drilling, citing the potential of significant financial gain for those who choose to lease their land to the gas companies.

"This should only be regulated at the state and federal level," he said. "To place a moratorium or ban on this could cost a land owner a lot of money. It should be up to the property owner to decide."

Mr. Franke cited an instance in which acquaintances allowed for similar drilling to take place.

"They had no problems at all," he said.

Fellow resident Chet Smolenski added that while he appreciated the committee's efforts in drafting the ordinance, he believes it will not carry much weight.

"What you have is unenforceable," Mr. Smolenski said. "It is a paper tiger and is ineffective."

Blaine Lucas, an attorney with Consol Energy, said the company does have an interest in setting up shop in Murrysville but no immediate plans for drilling. He cautioned the committee as they move forward with the draft.

"You cannot have two masters," he said. "When you have state regulations and a local ordinance, there can be a conflict. There needs to be flexibility from both parties."

Mr. Lucas added noise and environmental statutes within the ordinance should not just be enforced on drilling companies, but across the board.

Ms. Kearns said additional hearings are expected and a final draft may not be ready until this spring.



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