Linda Bartley from Western Land Services of Canonsburg, Pa., spoke before a packed Poland Village Council meeting on Jan. 17. The company, which specializes in identifying and developing potential drilling properties, is representing Hilcorp Energy of Houston.
Bartley, who had been in discussions with council president Joe Mazur and Poland Municipal Forest chairman Bob Zedaker, was invited to present a contract before council for members to study and consider.
However, Bartley stated that she was not expecting a meeting with the public and media present, and submitted a sample lease to council instead. When asked by council members for technical details, Bartley said that an official from Hilcorp would be better qualified to provide such information.
Following Bartley's presentation, Mayor Tim Sicafuse invited residents to come forward with questions and comments about the prospect of gas exploration in Poland Village, which has been discussed at recent village meetings and is now under consideration by council.
Ralph Mentzer of Audubon Lane expressed his concern about proposed drilling under Poland Woods by way of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, which shoots water, sand and chemicals down a well at very high pressure, fracturing the layers of rock below and releasing the natural gas locked within. Paramount among Mentzer's concerns was ensuring that the water in the woods and surrounding areas remains clean and free from pollution.
Mentzer also said that after reading the deed bestowing the land for Poland Woods to the village, he believes the document's wording might prohibit such action. In addition to environmental and health issues, Mentzer worries that water contamination could lead to lower property values in the area. He went so far as to suggest that if gas exploration is perceived to violate the language of the forest deed, a recall of the document could be pursued.
"I would recommend it, actually," he said.
Ron Eiselstein of Youngstown, owner of The Village Pantry on South Main Street, was more bullish on the prospect of drilling. He said that he was contacted by Chesapeake Energy of Oklahoma City to develop land that he owns in Lake Milton and has already signed leases with both Hilcorp and Chesapeake. While he urged council to continue researching the subject to "make sure it's done right," Eiselstein called the current gas boom a generational opportunity that could ensure the area's fortunes for decades to come.
"Let's grab it by the horns," he said enthusiastically.
Robert Zedaker, chairman of the Poland Municipal Forest Board, asserted that people who are concerned about the cleanliness of the water in the woods needn't worry, as it is already contaminated with E. coli. According to Zedaker, the contamination is from old, failing septic systems in homes surrounding the area. He also reasserted that no drilling would be permitted in the woods itself. Instead, horizontal drilling would allow the fracking to take place thousands of feet under the woods from a drill site outside of the village. He went on to assure council that the multiple layers of rock between where the gas is being released and the relatively shallow water wells would provide ample protection for residents' water.
Cathy Lind of Audubon Lane spoke about the storm water utility that was defeated by Poland voters in last November's election and was intended to meet government environmental mandates. She wondered if failure to pass the utility, coupled with soliciting bids for drilling leases, wouldn't invite greater government scrutiny and harm the village's chance of receiving grants to complete those storm water projects.
"Will this kind of action you're considering send up any kind of red flags to the government?" she said.
Lind also asked if council would host public hearings and hold off on a final decision until such hearings are held. Village solicitor Anthony D'Apolito replied that a public hearing followed by three public readings of any potential agreement would be needed before it would come to a vote.
Gordon Longmuir, a member of the Forest Foundation and president of Friends of the Forest, spoke briefly but passionately, urging restraint on the part of council.
"Go slow, go slow," he said. "We can never get back what we have now if something happens there [in the woods]."
Lance Kearns of College Street delivered a more sanguine account of gas extraction. He told council that his family owns a dairy farm in Pennsylvania where drilling takes place and has experienced no pollution to their well water or other ill effects.
"If you would ever like to see the effects of natural gas drilling, come to our farm," he said. "You won't see anything different than you would have seen beforehand."
Kearns said that he understands people's worries, but that not all stories of gas drilling are horror stories. He stated that the energy companies made mistakes in the past, but have learned from them and corrected the problems. Kearns also urged council to continue educating themselves on the subject and make sure that any lease they approve is negotiated very carefully.
Mayor Tim Sicafuse thanked the public for their comments and said that if council decides to move forward, having a lease negotiated on their behalf for consideration would only be a first step.
"We're not going to sign today and then drill," he said.
Sicafuse told residents that council members understand their responsibilities as stewards of the village. He said that they will need to consider the environmental and liability concerns of drilling balanced against the village's need for income in the wake of budget cuts from Columbus and the end of estate tax collection in 2013.