Officials in Washington County Township say shale-related cost leads to cut in police service

Thursday, December 01, 2011

By Andrea Iglar

Several years into the Marcellus Shale boom, officials in Robinson, Washington County, have seen effects of the natural gas drilling industry on their landscape, budget and workload.

Robinson has hired a full-time manager, initiated legal action against a gas company and handled the development of numerous wells.

A former coal mining hub, the rural township of 2,200 residents is part of the Fort Cherry School District and borders Findlay and North Fayette — part of a region being targeted by gas companies who are pointing their drills northward.

Brian Coppola, Robinson supervisors chairman, said what’s happened in his township is an indication of things to come in Allegheny County, where municipal officials may not realize the size and scope of Marcellus development or grasp the consequences of losing local zoning powers.

“All the people in the suburbs are seeing are the [Range Resources] TV commercials with a nice guy standing under a tree playing a guitar,” Mr. Coppola said. “That is not the reality of it.”

He said much Marcellus development is a high-impact, industrial use that puts a strain on local resources.

Robinson has 37 Marcellus wells and one gas processing plant within its 21 square miles, and officials expect to see more drilling, pipelines and gas exploration in the years to come.

Last year, Robinson spent about $60,000 in legal fees and $20,000 in engineering fees related to gas industry issues, Mr. Coppola said. That’s nearly 25 percent of the township’s approximately $350,000 annual budget.

“We cut our police service by two-thirds because of all the costs we have with the gas industry,” Mr. Coppola said.

In August, supervisors hired Richard Ward as a full-time manager and zoning officer at a salary of $43,000 a year. The reason was that work related to gas projects was overwhelming the township and its only full-time employee, secretary Christine Rummell.

Mr. Ward said as the manager, he’s been spending about half his time dealing with gas industry issues. The job includes visits to gas sites to ensure they are in compliance with local laws.

“If the gas industry didn’t exist, we wouldn’t need a manager in Robinson Township,” Mr. Coppola said.

A 16-year Robinson resident, Mr. Ward formerly was a retail manager, a federal intelligence agent for seven years and a member of the Air National Guard for 23 years. He previously served on the zoning hearing board for 10 years, and he has headed the township’s planning commission for the past three years.

Mr. Ward can hold the manager post and keep his planning seat because the commission is only a recommending body, Mr. Coppola said. One reason for hiring Mr. Ward was his knowledge of zoning and land use, he said.

Since 2008, gas companies have drilled 37 wells in the Marcellus Shale in Robinson, according to state Department of Environmental Protection data.

The busiest of those four years was 2010. The busiest drillers were Range Resources, with 23 wells, and Atlas Energy/Chevron, with 11 wells. Oklahoma-based Chesapeake Energy Corp. drilled three wells.

Other companies are approaching residents about leases, Mr. Ward said.

The energy companies are based in other states but maintain Marcellus divisions with local offices.

Last year, Robinson initiated legal action against gas gathering and processing company Laurel Mountain Midstream LLC, a jointly owned venture of The Williams Cos. Inc. and Atlas Energy, owned by Chevron Corp. of San Ramon, Calif.

Laurel Mountain had built a dew point control facility — similar to a gas processing plant or compressor station — in the Robinhill development on Bigger Road, a sparsely populated residential zone near the Clinton area of Findlay, home of Pittsburgh International Airport.

The township originally contended the facility was built without the proper permits or oversight, and various appeals, countersuits and legal proceedings followed.

Currently, three legal cases are pending in the Washington County Common Pleas Court, all related to the Laurel Mountain facility, said township attorney John Smith, a partner in the Cecil-based law firm Smith Butz.

Lawyers from both sides were expected to meet with President Judge Debbie O’Dell Seneca in an attempt to resolve the issues, including an appeal by Laurel Mountain of a township decision to impose certain requirements on the development, Mr. Smith said.

At one time, Robinson also was involved in litigation with Texas-based Range Resources over the drilling firm’s appeal of a township decision, but the case was resolved before going to court, Mr. Smith said.

Meanwhile, Robinson supervisors are considering an application from local developer Robinson Power LLC to burn half natural gas in a power plant complex that previously was proposed as an entirely waste coal-fired plant.

The latest session of an ongoing public hearing on the so-called Beech Hollow Energy Project was held Nov. 16 and will continue at 7 p.m. Dec. 12 in the municipal building, 8400 Noblestown Road.

Other gas-related activities are in the works, too.

Texas-based Dawson Geophysical, working for Range Resources, has submitted an application to the township for seismic testing, a gas exploration method that employs explosives and vibrating equipment to map underground features.

And there’s talk that MarkWest Liberty, in cooperation with Range Resources, plans to build a gas pipeline through the township.

The pipeline likely would run past some existing lines at the 550-acre Chevron site, where a jumble of underground pipeline already has made the land “completely useless” for any future residential development, Mr. Coppola said.

In general, if companies shared pipelines, well pads and other infrastructure, the amount of disturbed surface area would decrease by at least two-thirds, he said.

“The crux of the problem is the industry will not work with each other,” Mr. Coppola said. “They all want to set up their own operations. They will not share infrastructure.”

Andrea Iglar, freelance writer:

First published on December 1, 2011 at 4:56 am