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February 28, 2014

Pulaski Township: Nuns say no to drilling

NEW CASTLE — The nuns at Villa Maria have said no to fracking their 761 acres, despite offers from five gas drilling companies.

And they urge others to think carefully before signing a contract.

Sister Barbara O’Donnell told The News Thursday that the decision came after much discussion and research by the Humility of Mary congregation, which makes its home at the Evergreen Road complex in Pulaski Township.

The rural complex includes the Villa Maria Education and Spirituality Center, which hosts meetings and retreats for up to 200 people at a time, a working farm with 250 tillable acres used for field crops, a five-acre organic farm with a market, independently owned apartments for the elderly, a home for about 43 aging nuns, nature trails, a labyrinth and other features.

The decision was unanimous for an eight-member land committee of nuns, associates and employees and the congregation later affirmed that vote.

The vote was the product of much research “and prayerful discernment,” she said.

But O’Donnell said Villa Maria may have to put up with fracking anyway. She explained that an adjacent landowner has signed a contract. The noise of well pad drilling, not to mention the pollution potential for the well water that serves the complex, may soon be a reality.

She said one of the nature trails will pass right by the well pad.

Several adjacent landowners signed contracts after being told, falsely, by a landman from one of the companies that the nuns had signed a contract, according to O’Donnell. The congregation wrote personal letters to 80 landowners, she said, and conducted a meeting in 2012 to set the record straight. But the damage had been done.

Today, O’Donnell and the other nuns are continuing to urge landowners and government officials to know all the facts and use caution before they grant permission for fracking, which is widespread in Pulaski Township.

“We need to educate ourselves before making a decision.”

So far, eight educational programs about fracking have been presented at Villa Maria and each was attended by 60 to 100 people, she said. Presenters included lawyers, scientists and gas companies. O’Donnell said more programs are scheduled, beginning March 27.

The complex is the largest employer in Pulaski Township, O’Donnell noted, and the nuns have been on the property for 150 years.

Thousands of people go to Villa Maria weekly “for the quiet and the beauty and for their health,” she said. “This is our business,” she continued. “It provides the livelihood that makes us self-sustaining.”


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