Ever since the South Hills Country Club leased part of its land to Chesapeake Energy to allow high-volume slickwater hydraulic fracturing in Whitehall Borough, Whitehall's elected officials have taken some heat.
But in front of a large crowd at Wednesday night's Whitehall Council meeting, those officials stood up for themselves during often-heated exchanges with borough residents.
In a room not meant to fit more than 50 or 60 people, those residents overflowed out of the meeting space and used public comments time to question whether or not their council members were doing enough to protect them from hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking"—a controversial component of Marcellus Shale natural-gas drilling that has been linked to dangerous levels of pollution.
The councils of some of Whitehall's neighboring municipalities, such as Baldwin Borough and the City of Pittsburgh, have passed local ordinances that ban natural-gas drilling, but the Whitehall Council has gone the route of only restricting that type of drilling to four areas in the borough—South Hills C.C. being one of them.
Thus, the country club's lease with Chesapeake Energy is perfectly legal in Whitehall. Still, club officials have told the Whitehall Council that no drilling activity has taken place there yet.
Is a Full Ban Appropriate? Is the Solicitor Appropriate?
Mark Valenta, who lives at 4557 Echo Glen Dr. (very near the country club), was one of many residents on Wednesday that urged the council to pass an outright ban on natural-gas drilling instead of a partial ban. Valenta also questioned whether or not Whitehall's solicitor Irving Firman, of Tucker|Arensberg Attorneys, is "the proper advocate for this community."
Firman's legal advice to the Whitehall Council has been to avoid passing an outright ban.
Valenta cited text from the Tucker|Arensberg website, which shows that firm features 12 lawyers who represent clients for cases regarding "Energy - Oil, Gas & Minerals."
"Tucker Arensberg, P.C., provides a wide range of services to those engaged in, and providing services to, the oil, natural gas and coal industries, primarily in the Appalachian Basin of Pennsylvania, Eastern Ohio, Western New York and Northern West Virginia, including those active in the Marcellus Shale play and shallow formations," Valenta read from the site.
"I question whether or not he (Firman) can advocate for us given I'm sure the large amount of money that his firm brings in from these companies versus what he brings in acting as a solicitor here," Valenta said.
Firman, however, is not one of the 12 aforementioned Tucker|Arensberg lawyers, and Firman said that he does not know offhand if any of those 12 have Chesapeake Energy as a client. Firman was asked by Valenta to find out and report back to the Whitehall Council.
Firman has represented other land developers, though.
Whitehall Mayor James F. Nowalk, who has been an outspoken opponent of natural-gas drilling in Whitehall, said that the fact that Firman does not know offhand if any of his colleagues represents Chesapeake shows that Firman is properly maintaining "a wall of separation" from his colleagues when it comes to looking out for Whitehall's best interests.
Said Firman, "I represent municipalities. I represent developers. I represent business owners. I represent a wide array of people. That does not preclude me from giving advice on these various issues. In fact, it makes me better suited to give advice because I understand what the outfits are doing."
Firman also said that part of having an oil and gas practice includes representing homeowners against drilling companies.
"It's somewhat offensive to me with your implication that you think that my advice (to the Whitehall Council) would be somehow skewed by my representation (of others)," he said.
Several crowd members became upset with Firman over that comment, yelling, "No, no, no," and applauding Valenta.
But Councilman Philip Lahr came to Firman's defense, saying that Firman is protecting Whitehall and that Firman is right to recommend only restrictions on gas drilling rather than an outright ban.
"We have this man sitting here that gives us legal advice," Lahr said, "and I take offense at you (Valenta)."
Valenta responded that he has the public right to speak, and Lahr agreed.
"But you don't need to insult this man (Firman)," Lahr said.
Crowd members began to shout at Lahr, but Lahr responded, "I have the floor. You will be quiet."
He then went on to explain that he and his fellow council members agree with Firman when Firman recommends not to completely ban drilling because doing so would be in contradiction to higher state law and could bring heavy court costs to the borough's taxpayers.
"It is illegal to completely ban (Marcellus Shale drilling)," Firman said. "It's unconstitutional. That's the reason that we adopted the ordinance that we did."
Added Lahr about the prospect of facing expensive court battles, "I don't want to put you (residents) in front of all of that (court battles). I don't want to put my borough in front of that."
Act 13, and "Where's Your Courage?"
Council President William J. Veith explained that the recent passing of a joint bill by the Pennsylvania Legislature that amends the state's Oil and Gas Act to allow drilling in all municipal zones—also known as Act 13—trumps any ban that Whitehall could enact.
Mayor Nowalk added that Act 13 also trumps Baldwin's and Pittsburgh's bans and puts those municipalities in danger of lawsuits.
But Ron and Patricia Covato, of 4602 Clubvue Dr., which is also very near the country club, see a lawsuit as being worth the risk if it spares borough homeowners from seeing their property values dip from being close to a fracking site.
"Have we calculated the costs to residents' homes, mortgages, roads?" Ron asked. "It may be cheaper for us to pay those (legal) expenses rather than to lose our homes."
Added Patricia over the threat of lawsuits, "Fear—yes, that's one thing. But where's your courage?"
So What Are the Options?
Not every resident at Wednesday's borough meeting disagreed with the council's decision to follow Firman's advice. Bob Kauer, of 4350 E. Barlind Dr., for example, acknowledged that Act 13 ties Whitehall's and other municipalities' hands when it comes to banning natural-gas drilling.
"There's no way that you can stop Marcellus Shale drilling," Kauer said.
But Kauer recommended that the Whitehall Council and other citizens try to help each other to find a state legislator to sponsor a bill that would amend Act 13 to prohibit drilling at least in urban and suburban areas like Whitehall.
"You'll never get rid of the act in its entirety," Kauer said, "but we need some type of guidance to go about getting a senator or a state legislator (involved)."
Lahr suggested contacting state Rep. Harry A. Readshaw, whose jurisdiction includes part of Whitehall. Readshaw has voted against Act 13.
"The only way Act 13's gonna change is if we get a senator or a representative to sponsor a bill to do it," Kauer said. "If we go that route, it doesn't cost us legal fees in front of the Supreme Court if it goes that far ...
"This council didn't do (Act 13). The state legislators that we put in office did it."
Bill Bozic, of 8 Club Dr. E., another country club neighbor, offered another possible defense for banning drilling in Whitehall, saying that Act 13 favors the natural-gas drilling industry over citizens' rights to due process in that drilling quickly and drastically harms the values of nearby homes and prevents things such as second mortgages or loans on property.
Councilman Robert McKown asked Firman to investigate that possibility.
Many other residents on Wednesday suggested to the Whitehall Council that the borough join Cecil Township, Mt. Pleasant Township and a handful of other municipalities in a group lawsuit that challenges Act 13. Firman said that he could not comment on that lawsuit since it has not yet been formally filed.
Speaking of constitutionality, Sarah Scholl, a co-founder of the South Hills Area Against Dangerous Drilling (SHAADD) group and a resident of 5302 Overlook Glen Dr., suggested that the Whitehall Council defend itself by citing a piece of the Pennsylvania Constitution. SHAADD helped to organize Wednesday's large turnout by delivering an informational flier—see it in this article's media gallery above—to homes near the country club.
The constitution reads, "The people have a right to clean air, pure water, and to the preservation of the natural, scenic, historic and esthetic values of the environment. Pennsylvania's public natural resources are the common property of all the people, including generations yet to come. As trustee of these resources, the Commonwealth shall conserve and maintain them for the benefit of all the people."
But Nowalk, who is also an attorney, did not agree that that piece of the state constitution would help Whitehall in court.
"Think about the history of southwestern Pennsylvania with steel mills and smog and my father telling me that there were days when you couldn't see the sunlight at 12 noon ... ," Nowalk said. "This is not an answer to a lawsuit. We will be out of court so fast and paying all the legal bills."
That's not to say that Nowalk, Veith and the rest of Whitehall's council members aren't adamantly opposed to drilling in Whitehall.
"Everyone here representing this community is fighting for the safety and for what's good for the community overall," Veith said. "There isn't a person sitting up here who wants the drilling.
"Everyone here is looking at the best avenues, through our solicitor and what correspondence we've had with other municipalities who also adopted ordinances, and we have come to the consensus that this (partial ban) is the direction to go."
Said Lahr, "I would be the first one to stand in front of those (drilling) trucks. I do not like any of it."
Added fellow Councilman Glenn Nagy, "This is not an adversarial thing. We're all on the same side, folks."
How do you feel about the potential of natural-gas drilling at the South Hills Country Club? In general? Tell us in the comments section below.
And check back with the Baldwin-Whitehall Patch later on Thursday for more odds and ends from Wednesday night's council meeting.
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