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November 19, 2013

‘Protect Our Children’ group addresses well

Meeting is at 7 p.m. Tuesday (Nov. 19) at Moraine

MERCER COUNTY AREA — In an effort called “Protect Our Children,” a group of parents and property owners concerned about the possible harmful effects of gas and oil drilling near schools is sharing its knowledge in regards to a well that could end up near Moraine Elementary School in Prospect.

The group on Tuesday hosted the first of two public meetings in the elementary school gym with speakers Robert Hinds and David Taylor, both retired Slippery Rock University professors. The second meeting is 7 p.m. this Tuesday, also in the gym.

Taxpayers and group members have shared their concerns several times with Slippery Rock Area School District board members at recent meetings, encouraging them to attend Tuesday’s presentation.

About a dozen people came, including parents of Moraine students, but no board members attended. The board holds its regular monthly meeting at 7:30 p.m. Monday in the middle school library.

“Protect Our Children” is a response to XTO Energy Inc.’s plans for a drill site in Prospect on Route 528 East. The company has yet to offer the district a lease for drilling rights but has said they’re interested in 1.33 acres on the edge of the Moraine property and that no drilling would occur on or underneath school land.

XTO has also said they’re working to secure leases with other property owners in the area and that they have yet to determine the exact location of the drill pad.

The parent/property owner group is doing outreach to show what a lease with the district might entail and provide information on different aspects of the drilling process, said member Jason Bell, a Seneca resident who is a graduate of Slippery Rock High School.

Hinds, who taught geology and oceanology for 32 years at SRU and lives near the Drake well in Worth Township, Butler County, told the small crowd he wasn’t trying to promote drilling or speak out against it; he was just presenting basic information.

The gas and oil industry promises a lot when it comes to what will or won’t happen because of drilling - lease holders will get a big payout, water sources won’t be contaminated and there won’t be any ill health effects, he said.

“The promises are big,” Hinds said.

His presentation showed how Utica Shale formations are much deeper than Marcellus Shale, and that drilling can produce carcinogens, he said, adding that much of his information came from the National Energy Technology Laboratory, which is owned and operated by the U.S. Department of Energy.

Hinds described how gas well casings are sealed in concrete, but things can go wrong since concrete doesn’t last forever; it can crack, especially since hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking” fluids and materials contain acid.

A typical drill site goes through 20 million pounds of sand and 23 million gallons of water, and countless chemicals are used throughout the process from start to finish, some of them toxic.

“It’s quite an operation,” he said.

An “incredible amount” of pressure is used during drilling and about 10 to 15 percent, or about 500,000 gallons, of the water comes back out.

About 2,500 gallons of that is chemicals, and that wastewater, or backflow, is injected into deep wells, used in more fracking or recycled.

Flaring is the process of ridding a well of excess pressure and impurities by burning them off, but it releases harmful vapors into the air, and kids are more vulnerable than adults, according to the Endocrine Disruption Exchange, a non-profit that Hinds said studies the health effects of drilling.

Another study done by the Texas Commission on Environmental Equality showed drill sites should be located at least 1 mile from school buildings to “adequately protect children from contaminants.”

But air quality is difficult to monitor since the federal Clean Air Act requires emission reports from facilities of certain sizes that don’t include drill sites, Hinds said.

He considers the “winners” of the gas and oil boom to be the big companies, the drill crews, local businesses, politicians, gas associations, local municipalities, lawyers, some landowners and for a while, gas consumers.

The “losers” are on the receiving end of accidents caused by increased truck traffic created by the drilling crews, and there are even social problems like bar brawls involving those same folks who are living in the area for the time being, Hinds said.

The gas and oil companies are also taking employees away from local businesses because they pay more, property values are going down, and in the end the price of gas won’t always stay low because most of it will be shipped overseas.

Hinds also noted the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection is responsible for the conservation of gas and oil, but to the agency that means “don’t leave any behind.”

Taylor, who taught chemistry at SRU for 36 years, questioned XTO’s need for such a small piece of the Moraine property.

“Is this a real lease or a PR stunt?” he asked.

A drill site is not allowed to be closer than 300 feet to a home or building like a school, but there are no limitations on noise, fracking fluid components and vapors, meaning the location of the well pad could be an issue, depending on wind direction.

Taylor wondered if the ventilation system at Moraine can handle the potentially harmful particles released during the flaring process. Chronic inhaling of vapors and gases can lead to lethargy and permanent brain damage.

“No conventional ventilation system removes organic vapors,” he said.

Some windows at the school could be rattled depending on the location of the site, and while noise levels vary, they are constant and could affect the education process.

Also, Moraine uses well water, so school officials need to consider whether they’d be prepared for a total water disruption.

“Can the windows handle an explosion? Always question!” Taylor stressed throughout his presentation.

Even if the school board doesn’t sign a lease, it will likely have no effect on XTO putting a well in this area because 1.33 acres “doesn’t mean beans to them,” Hinds said.

He believes XTO approached the district to make an impression on other potential lease holders.

“If the school district says it’s OK to lease, what does that tell the general public?” he asked.

 Moraine Elementary is at 350 Main St., Prospect, and Tuesday’s speakers include Erika Staff of PennEnvironment and Dianne Arnold. They will give an overview of recent scientific studies on the effects of gas drilling near vulnerable population and their potential health risks to children. Question and answer will follow.

For more information about “Protect Our Children,” visit www.facebook.com/protectRchildren

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