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April 17, 2014

Gas holdouts unconvinced of safety

NEW CASTLE — When Suzanne Matteo and her husband, Martin, bought their house on four acres in Pulaski Township they had a plan.

They would grow a huge vegetable garden, raise lots of flowers and a few chickens and enjoy the fresh air and quiet. Someday, maybe, they would build a new house on the other end of the property.

“I was supposed to die here,” Matteo said, noting she and her husband had moved to New Bedford-Sharon Road to get away from city life.

But the couple didn’t know their land was sitting on a shale formation rich in natural gas that would attract drilling companies from all over the country. Or that most of their neighbors would sign drilling leases. Or that well pads and pipelines would soon begin to dot the landscape.

The first hint came one July day in 2011 when their house started shaking.

“The sound was horrible.” Matteo said. Frightened, she took her daughter, Alessandra, now 6, outside.

A man with seismic equipment told her he was working on “phase I of the Marcellus Shale project.”

It was her introduction to hydraulic fracturing or “fracking.” Her research since then has convinced her “this is nothing that I want near us.”

Today, the Matteos are one of only four private landowners in an area of approximately 3,200 acres who have refused to sign leases to allow gas and oil to be taken from under their property. A fifth property is held by a gas company.

The owners of the other three properties declined to be interviewed for this story.

Matteo said she would have no problem with fracking if it could be proven safe. “But they can’t prove it.”

She said her research has convinced her there are many health dangers. “All of it is challenged by the industry and the DEP denies it.”

But she said there are health concerns with the 500 undisclosed chemicals in the flowback water that comes out of wells after drilling and she has heard of flaring of wells with benzene and other toxic chemicals. She said she has read that because of drilling, the air quality in Wyoming is worse than inner city Los Angeles.

Her biggest fear about fracking? “That my kids will get leukemia,” she responded without hesitating.

“I told my husband that when the wells are within a mile of our home, I’m taking the girls and leaving.”

Now Hilcorp Energy Co. is invoking a 1961 state law in an attempt to force the Matteos and other landowners who will not sign leases to allow drilling under their land.

This is the first time anyone has tried to apply the law to fracking in Pennsylvania. Hilcorp contends the wells can be drilled more efficiently if they don’t have to go around the holdout landowners. The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection will make a decision on this “forced pooling” after three hearings scheduled for May.

Matteo said she never wanted this fight. She wanted a quiet country life and has reluctantly become an activist.

“Mommy doesn’t want to be talking to reporters,” she murmured to Alessandra, and her other daughter, Oliese, 22 months, who are waiting to go for ice cream after two reporters are done interviewing her.

But even though the Matteos and the other holdouts are pitted against a multmillion-dollar gas and oil drilling company and “it’s a lot on our little shoulders,” Matteo said she believes it is important to stay in the fight.

She said she and her husband have not hired a lawyer, explaining that even if they sold their home and property, the proceeds would not be enough to pay the costs of this legal fight.

But she said they will not give up because the forced pooling decision will set a precedent affecting many others.

Less than three miles away, another township resident, Rick Kinkela, has a different point of view.

He is at peace with the fact he and his wife, Cindy, have leased 278 acres for drilling, including the Rolling Hills Golf Course, which they own, and their adjacent farm. A well pad sits on the farm property, almost in view of the golf course.

Kinkela said he views the oil and gas drilling industry as the first real break the area has had since the steel mills closed in the 1970s.

But leasing was a not a decision he made easily.

“I was in the original Bessemer group.”

He explained that in 2011, a group of landowners met monthly in nearby Bessemer to discuss whether gas leasing was in their interest. They consulted with lawyers and Kinkela said he had dealt with his “legitimate concerns” about drilling by doing an extensive amount of research.

He said he studied the gas drilling industry and Hilcorp itself. He spoke with independent environmentalists who were working for Hilcorp, did Internet research and talked with neighbors in his drilling unit who included a college physics professor and a military contractor.

Satisfied that he was doing the right thing, he signed a lease that he insisted included a clause prohibiting surface drilling on the golf course.

During construction of the well pad, he sometimes noticed a humming sound, he said, but otherwise the pad has not been intrusive or disturbing. Construction has stopped and the well pad, which now has three wells in production, “looks like a parking lot.”

And the holdouts? “I support their right to decide what’s best for them, but I’m torn because I have to support the rights of other people,” Kinkela said, adding, it’s “a tough call.”

He pointed out there is forced pooling in 40 states and the laws are designed to promote the most efficient development with the smallest environmental fallout, minimizing cost and maximizing profit.

“The laws also insure that you don’t have a well pad every half-mile.”

Kinkela said Hilcorp is a good neighbor and easy to work with. He is so comfortable with the drilling, he noted, he takes his 13-year-old son Matthew hunting around the well pad.

And in the end, Kinkela said, that’s what this is all about — his son.

One of the deciding factors in signing the lease, Kinkela explained, was his hope that the drilling industry will bring prosperity back to the area and children wouldn’t have to leave home to find a job.

Matthew, he said, is showing an interest in math, like Kinkela who holds a degree in mathematics. He would like his son to be able to find employment close to home so he can stay in this area. Kinkela believes this new industry might make that possible.

Because of the gas and oil drilling, “I have hope for the future.”

(Email: grzebieniak@ncnewsonline.com)

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