Farmers, Landowners Gather to Kick Around Shale Politics

2/16/2013 7:00 AM
By Chris Kramer Western Pa. Correspondent

BULGER, Pa. — As of late, the local Grange Hall in this rural corner of Washington County has been a gathering spot for showers, birthday parties and Boy Scouts.

But on a recent rainy Wednesday evening, cars and trucks filled the lot and parked along the road in front of the hall as — even if for just one night — the Burgettstown Grange Hall was once again used for its first-intended purpose.

Right after the Civil War, the national fraternal organization was formed to encourage families to band together to promote the economic and political well-being of rural communities.

Back then, the hot subjects were railroad costs and free mail delivery.

More than 100 years after the Burgettstown Grange was formed in a blacksmith shop across the street, the main topic in the “new” Grange Hall was Marcellus Shale gas drilling.

Three Washington County townships come together near the Grange Hall — Robinson, Hanover and Smith — and to local landowners, it seems each township has had a different experience with Marcellus Shale.

John Campbell farms hay and beef cattle on a century farm in Robinson. While always keeping an eye on politics in his corner of the county, what he perceives as “obstructionist” local government caused him and down-the-road neighbor Stephen Duran to organize the meeting.

Without anyone from gas companies or environmen tal groups involved, Campbell and Duran were looking to get some input from their neighbors about what they think about the gas-drilling boom — the pipelines and compressor stations being built — and to share what they know and their experiences with it.

“You go to these township meetings and there are some very loud people making all these negative comments and when you make a (pro-drilling) comment you get heckled,” Campbell said. “So we don’t say anything. I’d like to just have a discussion of the facts and share some information without all of that.”

Campbell recently signed a lease for his farm, where he lives with lots of family close by. A gas pipeline is also cutting across the farm. His daughter, Mary Donaldson, who lives right across the road, said it took him years to finally sign the lease while families all around had already done so.

“Anyone that knows my dad knows he doesn’t do things quickly,” Donaldson said. “I have a daughter with cystic fibrosis so he researched all this. Do you think he would’ve signed if he thought it would negatively impact his granddaughter?”

Duran, a veteran combat medic in the Navy and Marine Corps, said the money came in handy paying medical bills for his daughter who has cerebral palsy but that the farm itself was his focus.

“Usually, it’s just my dad and me going round and round with the baler, and for the first time I was able to hire some help,” he said. “And (my daughter) is my future. I want to pass this all down to her someday, so it isn’t all about the money.”

Just to the south of the Campbell and Duran farms, the Frame and Kendall families are waiting for Robinson Township to approve permits for wells on their property.

The township contends that the drilling company — Range Resources — has not given it adequate information to make a final decision on the wells.

Range contends the township has been given the same information it received for other permitted and active wells in the township. A lawsuit is pending.

Those active wells are on property owned by Imperial Land Co., the real-estate arm of Aloe Brothers LLC, which strip-mined the 2,000-odd acres where those wells are located.

Imperial Land is the largest landowner in Robinson Township and also owns several thousand adjacent acres just across the Allegheny County line northeast of Robinson.

“We’ve had nothing but a good experience,” said Brian Temple, who was representing Imperial Land at the meeting. “Some of the old haul roads they used in and out of those wells are better now than they were before.”

Temple and his company are now working to develop that land for light industry and mixed use.

The Aloe strip mines were just the last enterprises in what was more than a half-century of coal mining and related industry that greatly impacted the environment in northern Washington County.

Robinson Township has the largest coal waste site east of the Mississippi, the result of Consol Energy’s Champion Processing plant on land that was reclaimed and sold more than 20 years ago.

Just yards away across the county line — as far west as you can go in Allegheny — is the Imperial Landfill where Pittsburgh’s garbage has been piling up since just before World War II.

Its rural location between Pittsburgh and Weirton, W.Va., also made it an easy-access waste area for the steel industry.

Robinson and Smith have three pickling acid dumps between the two of them, and Robinson is also home to a Superfund site known as the Washington County Drum Dump.

Orange creeks, slate piles, whitish-blue ponds and other evidence of past industrial blunders are scattered throughout the area, which many local residents referred to as the “cesspool of the world” back when the trucks on the road carried mine and mill waste instead of fracking sand.

Those trucks on the roads in Smith were a primary concern when Range leased two large tracts in the middle of the township for drilling and purchased property to build a compressor facility that will push the gas north toward the Ohio River.

“At first, I was totally against it,” said John Thomas, a member of the Smith Planning Commission. “Then, when I started to do a little research and went and visited some of these sites, it changed my mind.”

Thomas and Jerry Yacoviello, a Smith Township supervisor, noted that the first compressor station in the area cost $350,000 to build. The latest one — going on a hill above the Grange Hall with improvements in soundproofing — will cost $1.2 million.

“The technology gets better and better,” Yacoviello said. “We like it and we welcome it.”

Less than a mile south of the Grange Hall, Range was punching its latest hole into the Marcellus Shale on Rich and Bonnie Moore’s farm.

The lights from the rig created a glow through the rainy night sky. The Moore’s two nonadjacent farms will soon be joined by that same pipeline that will cross Campbell’s farm.

“The people from Range and (pipeline company) Markwest have been great,” said Bonnie Moore. “They’ve done everything we’ve asked them to do.”

And that pipeline, Hanover resident Jim Shoup says, is leading toward the future. Shoup works in the chemical industry, and even though he won’t get a dime from drilling since he doesn’t own the gas rights on his 30-odd acres, he welcomes a proposed gas well on neighbor Perry Secco’s farm.

Shell Oil and other chemical companies are building and re-fitting plants along the Ohio River in Beaver County to take advantage of the multiple uses of the multiple products that come from Marcellus gas.

It’s these jobs that Shoup says he hopes will create opportunity for his grandchildren.

“This is just the tip of the iceberg,” Shoup said. “It’s what’s to come that will have the biggest impact on this area. All these smart kids who are going to school now to get jobs in the Pittsburgh hospitals will, 10 years from now, be going to school for chemical engineering and things like that.”

Every copy of the daily newspapers — clippings from which were circulating around the Grange Hall —contains letters from both sides in this volatile issue.

Even the local state representative — once touting the jobs and opportunities of Marcellus shale development and now railing against Range and the state Department of Environmental Protection — exemplifies the back-and-forth nature of the subject.

“The most boring things in the world are the facts,” Shoup said. “Anybody being happy about anything won’t sell newspapers, so what you’re going to see is the unhappy people.”

Putnam Foley — a self-described “piston head” who claims he saw a shallow gas well on his farm “fracked” with surplus P-51 aircraft engines back in the 1960s — is one of those people you won’t read about; for now, anyway.

Campbell said that during a recent township meeting Foley kicked his chair and leg so many times after “questionable” comments were made that he had to turn around and make sure he was OK.

“Maybe it’s time for old buggers like me to get up and say something,” said Foley, who touted energy independence as a driving factor in his decision to support gas drilling.

“This is a great opportunity for these kids. It’s a little better job than Burger King.”

Does milk have a lot of untapped potential in today’s competitive beverage market?

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