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Gas drilling issue heats up. Residents have many questions

June 4, 2008

The River Reporter
May 29 - June 4, 2008

HONESDALE, PA - Gas drilling is going to be a controversial issue in Wayne and Sullivan counties for a very long time. For evidence, you need look no further than the meeting that was held on May 21 at the Honesdale Middle School gymnasium, with a crowd of about 500 people. Some were quietly in favor of drilling, others were loudly against it.

The people swarmed all over the bleachers on one side of the gym, sitting under lights that could not be dimmed to view the PowerPoint presentations. Other people sat on the floor or stood along the walls of the gym.

"We tried to get the auditorium, but the school district said it was unavailable," said Vidal Martinez, superintendent of the National Park Service (NPS), which was a co-sponsor of the meeting. "We know these were not ideal conditions, but many people said the meeting was a good one."

The NPS was joined by co-sponsors the Upper Delaware Council (UDC) and the Catskill Mountainkeeper (CM).

NPS invited representatives of the two groups that have emerged as adversaries and proponents of the gas drilling: the Damascus Citizens for Sustainability (DCFS) and the Northern Wayne Property Owners Alliance (NWPOA) respectively.

Making presentations were Patrick O'Dell, petroleum engineer for the National Park Service in Denver, CO; Ron Gilius, director of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, Bureau of Oil and Gas Management (BOGM); Lester Greevy, mineral rights law specialist from Williamsport, PA; Wes Gillingham, program director of the Catskill Mountainkeeper; Paul Schmidt, former legal counsel for the DEP and a staff attorney from Zarwin Baum of Philadelphia, PA, representing the DCFS; and Harry Weiss, a Philadelphia attorney representing the NWPOA.

Each speaker was held to a 20-minute presentation. After the presentations, which took about an hour and a half, attendees posed questions, which were written on index cards, to the speakers. The question period lasted another hour and a half.

O'Dell spoke of the historical instances of drilling that went on in the past and is going on now on property owned by the NPS. Currently, the NPS has 14 such sites around the country.

Gilius outlined the role of the DEP's BOGM agency, highlighting the regulations under which gas drilling companies must function in the state. He indicated that in 2007, BOGM issued 7,300 drilling permits. He also indicated that the agency, currently employing only two staff to inspect drill sites, is planning to hire three more.

Greevy spoke generally of the nature of a drilling lease and drilling operations, and of the need by landowners to have good counsel before they sign anything.

Schmidt and Gillingham shared the 20-minute time period, with Schmidt showing videos of disgruntled land owners in Hickory, PA who signed leases and experienced numerous problems that the gas companies would not or could not solve. Gillingham spoke, in part, about aspects of gas drilling and, specifically, of the noxious chemicals that are routinely used in the process of fracking a well. He warned that the gas companies have been exempt from the requirements of several national environmental laws and consider the contents of fluids used in drilling as proprietary information, and therefore private.

Weiss, who is originally from Wayne County, expressed the desire of members of the NWPOA to protect the environment by means of provisions in the lease while pursuing the rewards that can come from the discovery of gas. He stated that, while it is not a good idea to demand too many restrictions from companies for fear they will react poorly, property owners should be clear about what they want protected on their land while drilling is carried out.

During the question and answer period, attendees asked many questions, such as who pays for damages that might occur during drilling. The answer is that landowners are partners with the gas companies and could be held liable. Many questions went unanswered.

Martinez said that there were so many good comments from the public that NPS will consider holding a similar meeting in New York.

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