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Fracking riles residents in Pittsburgh’s northeastern suburbs

May 9, 2018 GMT

Greg DeMedio first learned of hydraulic fracturing activity under way in Indiana Township when he and his wife took their daughter to play at Emmerling Community Park.

“And we saw well pad signs branded with Range Resources, and we couldn’t believe it. Our jaws dropped,” said DeMedio, owner of a small insurance agency and co-owner of a cybersecurity firm. “My concern is about transparency.”

Environmental activist Dianne Peterson of O’Hara Township found out about the eight approved natural gas wells because she happened to see a post about it on Facebook.

“But many people I know found out by looking up from a soccer game and seeing the well pad standing there — pretty shocking,” Peterson said.

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Elissa Weiss, 64, a 28-year resident of Indiana Township, lamented that she saw nothing about planned fracking activity in the municipality’s quarterly newsletters and didn’t learn about it until nearly two years after the permitting process began.

The three concerned residents of Pittsburgh’s northeastern suburbs joined about 60 other residents and environmental activists Tuesday night in a protest against fracking shortly before the Indiana Township’s board of supervisors meeting.

Protesters outlined a litany of concerns about fracking activity within two miles of parks, schools, homes and day cares, arguing that drilling should be limited to industrial-zoned areas.

They cited fears over the potential negative impacts on the environment and public health and questioned whether the people of the communities being affected have received enough information and had enough opportunities for meaningful input.

“Fox Chapel School District-area residents are demanding transparency and accountability from their elected officials,” said Patrice Tomcik, field organizer with Moms Clean Air Force, an advocacy group focused on children’s health issues. “Residents believe that their state constitutional rights have been violated ... in an effort to expedite natural gas development in their community.”

Parent Vanessa Lynch went so far as to say she feels that the region is “currently under siege by drillers ready to get to work in populous neighborhoods far too close to homes, schools and parks.”

“Allegheny County is full of small, highly residential areas like ours, and the occurrence of fracking in the Fox Chapel area should serve as clear notice that the oil and gas companies do not view these areas as off limits,” said Lynch, who has two children, ages 9 and 12. “No one in the Pittsburgh region can now consider themselves immune to the threat of oil and gas drilling.”

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Range Resources said in a statement late Tuesday that it has “safely operated in Allegheny County for nearly a decade” and participated in a series of public meetings regarding the Indiana Township operations.

“Our goal is to safely and responsibly conduct operations and to work with the community to alleviate any concerns,” the statement said. “Previous Range operations in Allegheny County have included a full-cycle air-quality study by the Allegheny County Health Department at a nearby location, which found air-quality levels during operations to be consistent with the background data collected.”

The Marcellus Shale Coalition, an industry-backed group, boasted of the economic activity generated by fracking operations and emphasized that safety is a top priority.

“Our industry, including tens of thousands of hardworking Pennsylvanians, is deeply committed to protecting the health, safety and environment of our communities,” Marcellus Shale Coalition President David Spigelmyer said. “We’re proud of our long and clear record of safely producing clean-burning American energy that’s improving our economy, our environment and our nation’s security.”

Dr. Robert Hartsock, who specializes in hematology and hemapathology, was among the protesters. He said he’s “well aware” of more than 1,300 studies addressing the subtle dangers of fracking and its impacts.

“Once fracking starts, the problems become evident. Diesel truck traffic. Diesel truck fumes. Light and sound contamination at night. Water contamination,” Hartsock said. “Remember this: Oil and gas are not going to keep you alive, water will.”

Hartsock pointed to possible links between fracking activity and the dangerous release of chemicals into the surrounding air, water and soil.

Attorney Diane Clark of Fox Chapel suggested that Indiana Township “may have violated its fiduciary obligation to its residents” by rushing the process and not providing enough disclosure of likely and long-term impacts.

She further alleged that the township’s contracts with Range Resources “had virtually no enforcement provisions to ensure Range Resources’ compliance with state safety regulations.”

To be clear, the municipality did meet certain requirements — publishing newspaper advertisements and holding public hearings — but protesters argued that the public’s concerns were not sufficiently addressed.

Township officials could not immediately be reached to respond to the procedural concerns.

“We’re hoping that they will have to comply with more transparency, more information, when they try to expand — I don’t believe we’re going to be able to have them shut down the operation,” Clark said.

“We also are interested in getting the neighboring townships and boroughs to join in banning fracking altogether, to stop it in its tracks.”

Natasha Lindstrom is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 412-380-8514, nlindstrom@tribweb.com or via Twitter @NewsNatasha.