CHC Update – MDS Decision

The Indiana County Zoning Hearing Board has approved MDS’s second application to drill in the Yellow Creek Conservation Zone. This is unfortunate news, but not wholly unexpected. The entire decision is attached.CHC will continue to directly engage the county to ensure the conservation zones are not put at risk.

Tell the Commissioners what you think!

Wednesday, Sept. 14 @ 10:30 am, CHC will return to the commissioners at their regularly scheduled public meeting at the County Courthouse. For a lot of folks, this is where it all began.  We’ll deliver the nearly 300 signatures of residents asking the commissioners to take get serious about updating the 1973 ordinance.

Thus far the county has not produced one single expert to advise them on drilling at Yellow Creek. CHC has provided a number of expert opinions, including the opinions of three top environmental lawyers.  Why is the county dragging it’s feet?

Lets ask the commissioners ourselves – 
Wednesday, Sept. 14 @10:30am 
County Courthouse
Commissioner’s hearing room

Take Action Today!
We’ve met a number of folks in the months since we launched our petition – please, if you haven’t already, go to sign your support for the conservation zones.

Need Letters to the EditorCan’t make it to the commissioner’s meeting? Let the public know how you feel – draft a letter to the editor, ask a friend to review it, and send it off!  It is important that folks in the county know how wrong this decision is.


The Fracking News – Special Edition

Panel approves gas drilling at Yellow Creek

By SAM KUSIC | Posted: Saturday, September 10, 2011 3:00 am

Over the objections of several environmental organizations, the Indiana County Zoning Hearing Board has given a natural gas producer conditional permission to drill a shale-gas well near Yellow Creek State Park.

The decision to award Kittanning-based MDS Energy a special-use permit gives the company the final approval it needed for its mile-deep vertical Marcellus shale well, which is to be sunk off Ray Road in Cherryhill Township, less than a half-mile from Yellow Creek Lake’s northern shore. Company officials said they expect to begin drilling sometime in the coming weeks.

However, the permit carries three requirements MDS must meet if drilling is to proceed:

• In the event of an emergency, the company must notify Cherryhill Township supervisors and the Central Indiana County Water Authority. Yellow Creek Lake’s waters are the authority’s sole water source.

• MDS must notify the Indiana County Office of Planning and Development of “any finding by any governmental entity, including particularly, but not solely, the DEP, of any violation of any applicable regulation” at the well within 10 days of the finding.

• MDS must allow the Indiana County Conservation District to inspect the well site after the company completes the site preparation work; after it completes the well site restoration work; and at any other time in between, as many times as deemed advisable. The company is to cover the cost of all inspections.

If the conservation district finds that the company has violated its erosion and sedimentation control plan in ways that pose a public health and safety risk, the conservation district has been authorized to suspend the special use permit.

Mike Knapp, president of Knapp Acquisitions & Production, MDS’ land agent and public liaison, said MDS welcomes the conditions laid out under the permit.

“We’re a company that really prides itself on transparency. The more they want to come out and inspect, the better,” he said. “The more transparent we can be, the less scared people are going to be.”

Although there is no countywide zoning ordinance, the hearing board has authority in this matter through a special county ordinance designed to protect areas around Indiana’s parks from industrial development and detrimental land uses.

Called the Special Recreation and Conservation Zoning Ordinance, the ordinance covers an estimated 15,576 acres around Yellow Creek State Park and around Hemlock Lake, Blue Spruce and Pine Ridge county parks.

Gas well drilling is permitted in those areas, but it can be done only with the hearing board’s approval.

MDS had begun drilling the well earlier this year without the permit, reaching a depth of about 380 feet before the county ordered it to cease operations and apply for the permit. At the time, Knapp said the company had no idea it was drilling in the conservation zone or, for that matter, that the zone existed.

Nonetheless, the company complied.

It removed the drill rig from the site, capped the unfinished well and filed a permit application, which the board rejected in May, saying MDS had failed to show how it would protect public health and safety.

But at the same time, the board said it would welcome a revised application addressing the issues it raised.

And MDS did just that.

Among its considerations was a redesigned well site, one that voluntarily conforms to a more stringent set of state environmental rules governing drilling in watersheds deemed to be of high-quality. Yellow Creek is not considered a high-quality watershed.

To that end, MDS has promised, among other things, to build an earthen mound around the well site. It also said it will grade the site so it slopes away from the lake and toward diversion ditches running to holding ponds.

The hearing board, in a written decision handed down Friday, said the revisions sufficiently address the board’s concerns.

The board also said its decision should not be taken as a blanket approval of future shale-gas wells to be drilled in the conservation zones, nor should the permit agreement be taken as the template for obtaining those approvals.

“Each such proposed well will present a unique situation, and applications for special exception use permits can only be decided on a case-by-case basis,” the board wrote.

Beth Ann Marshall, the board’s vice chairwoman, offered a few additional remarks directed at MDS, saying that it is in the company’s best interest to make the permit agreement work.

“You represent the industry to this county,” she told Knapp, adding that she expects the company to make every effort to protect the park and public health and safety.

Gerald Smith, coordinator for the Coalition for a Healthy County, an umbrella group for people and organizations opposed to shale-gas drilling in the conservation zones, said that while they are disappointed with the overall decision, they are at least glad for the three conditions the board made upon issuing the permit.

“We applaud the conditions,” he said.

Still, he said the only real way to protect the public health and safety would have been to deny the permit.

Smith said the county is gambling with public safety on a promise and a handshake from a company that seems to have a less-than-stellar safety record, pointing out that the state Department of Environmental Protection has cited MDS 24 times for various violations at its other gas wells.

“I don’t think anything in their record shows that they have the qualifications or commitment to environmental safety to follow through with their plan,” Smith said. “I hope they do, but their record suggests something very different.”

Knapp said some of those violations were administrative, unrelated to the drilling process and others resulted from rainstorms that washed small amounts of dirt from well sites into nearby streams.

“MDS Energy has never caused any sort of chemical contamination of any waterways. The worst that has ever happened is that we had some mud run off a site after a heavy rain,” he said.

“There’s no company that has a perfect DEP record, but that does not mean every company is an irresponsible operator.”

That particular issue aside, the hearing board said although it recognized the coalition’s overall concerns, and agreed that they are legitimate, the group failed to show how those concerns relate to the MDS well.

“A generalized concern is not sufficient to permit the board to deny this application,” it wrote. “Also, the board would have found the testimony of informed experts to be more useful than a collection of clippings,” a reference to the newspaper articles, press releases, letters, expert testimony and studies coalition members sent to the board to support its contentions.

The decision comes as the Indiana County Planning Commission is working on revising the ordinance.

Byron Stauffer, the Indiana County Office of Planning and Development’s executive director, said the commission has been awaiting the decision before moving forward.

He said the commission is trying to revise the ordinance in such a way that it protects the areas around county parks but without running afoul of Pennsylvania’s Oil & Gas Act. The commission is supposed to provide an update to the county commissioners by Oct. 12.

Knapp said MDS has not established a specific schedule for drilling and fracturing the well, though the work is to be completed by year’s end.

The coalition, through the Yellow Creek Conservation Association, is considering appealing the decision in court, Smith said.


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