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Allegheny County Council hears public comment on potential fracking ban

Keith Srakocic

Allegheny County Council could make a decision later this summer on a bill that would ban new natural gas drilling and other industrial activity inside and underneath county parks. At a public meeting on Thursday, dozens of people spoke in support of the ordinance.

Hydraulic fracturing, also known as fracking, to drill for natural gas does not belong on public lands, said Rachael Neffshade. “Public parks exist for the enjoyment and health benefits of the residents of Allegheny County. They do not exist for resource extraction or for profit of any kind.”

If passed, the bill would prohibit mining, fracking, and other heavy industry practices, as well as “any other land uses that are not directly associated with the public’s recreational use and enjoyment of county parks.”

The ban would not apply to existing leases, including the lease granted atDeer Lakes Park in 2014, but it would prevent the operation from being expanded.

At a rally prior to the public hearing, Allegheny County Councilor Bethany Hallam, one of the bill’s sponsors, told protestors gathered under the portico at the City-County Building that this bill has long been a priority for her.

“I knew, just from talking to people in the community, that the one thing that everyone was worried about was ‘Can we afford to live in Allegheny County?’ It wasn’t about money, it was ‘Can our health afford to live in Allegheny County?’” she said. “Can we breathe our air; can our kids breathe our air? Is our water safe to drink?”

Legislation to ban fracking in county parks was introduced in 2014 but was not passed.

More than 50 people commented at the public hearing and all told council they support a ban on fracking and other forms of industrial extraction in county parks.

“Public parks are common spaces,” said Brian Nuckols. “There’s not many places you can go in the county that are free. Public parks are one of those places. We can’t allow them to be turned into industrial wastelands.”

Fracking has been linked to increased asthma rates, water contamination, some cancers, and other negative effects on people’s health and the environment.

“Unconventional oil and gas development is a heavy industrial process involving large areas of land, equipment, trucks, chemicals, and water. It generates millions of tons of solid waste and millions of gallons of liquid waste,” said John Stolz, a professor and director of Duquesne University’s Center for Environmental Research and Education. Stolz told the council that water produced as a byproduct contains “high concentrations of salts, heavy metals, and radioactive elements.”

“While the county may not be able to control oil and gas development by landowners with mineral rights, it can exercise its rights to preserve the integrity of its parks,” he added. “Don’t let the lure of short-term gains jeopardize the future of the parks.”

Industry advocates say fracking has had economic benefits for western Pennsylvania.

In a statement, County Executive Rich Fitzgerald said he opposes the legislation.

Fitzgerald, a long-time supporter of the natural gas industry, said he “wholeheartedly” endorses a move from fossil fuels to clean energy, “but we can’t flip the switch and make that change.”

He said getting to a sustainable future would require the county to create a path forward.

“Natural gas is part of that path. It has lowered our carbon footprint. It’s a piece of cleaner energy options including hydrogen. Everything we can do here to innovate and grow green jobs helps us travel that road to sustainable energy, but it’s not automatic and bills like the one being considered by Council are not rooted in that reality.”

Fitzgerald said the county has “no plans to allow any drilling or related activity in any of our parks.”

“With that being said, future administrations and councils should be allowed to evaluate what’s best for the county and its residents on a case by case basis and to deliberate that publicly. Anything else is not good government,” he said.

But advocates said there is no time to waste.

“In all of our governments, in state government, in national government what we should be doing is moving ourselves away from fossil fuels,” said Joe Schreiber. “Not fracking in county parks.”

The bill is currently sitting in the council’ssustainability committee. The full county council would need a veto-proof majority of 10 votes, as Fitzgerald is unlikely to approve it.

Julia Zenkevich reports on Allegheny County government for 90.5 WESA. She first joined the station as a production assistant on The Confluence, and more recently served as a fill-in producer for The Confluence and Morning Edition. She’s a life-long Pittsburgher, and attended the University of Pittsburgh. She can be reached at