A determined group of parents in the Mars School District has embarked on a concerted effort to have a two-mile safety zone overlay placed around the five schools along Route 228 in anticipation of six Marcellus Shale gas wells that are planned for a nearby farm.
But the landowner where the wells are proposed, who is the former Mars School Board president, said she is educated on the industry and trusts state legislation on unconventional gas drilling.
“I think the schools are going to continue to be safe,” Kim Geyer said.
Parent Charles Clark has spoken at the Adams and Middlesex township supervisors meetings and before the Mars School Board regarding the potential danger to students from of an accident at the wells.
The mission of Clark and a number of other parents since early March has been to prevent the wells from being placed at the farm of Bob and Kim Geyer by educating the supervisors on their rights regarding their zoning ordinances when it comes to unconventional drilling.
The group also is warning municipal officials about the potential scenarios at the schools should a disaster occur at the Geyer wells, as well as potential health hazards to students learning and playing near a gas extraction operation.
Clark said the group’s main concerns are:
n An explosion at the Geyer operation that could potentially blast the windows out of the Centennial School, and that would require an evacuation which would cause 3,200 students to pack into 44 buses for removal from the schools
n The emissions from the well operation and the trucks coming to and from the site could harm the children, whose systems are more vulnerable to pollutants than adults, according to a report from several experts that was compiled by Mars parent and geneticist Patrice Tomcik
n The supervisors are unaware that they can refuse wells according to their zoning ordinances, and that they erroneously fear lawsuits from drillers and leaseholders should they do so
n The rush to access the gas instead of waiting to ensure the extraction is completed in an appropriate area, which the parent group would not oppose.
“A school is somewhere you evacuate to, not from,” Clark said. “Why incur that kind of risk?”
The group, through a grant from the Clean Air Coalition, has retained Jordan Yeager, an attorney with the Doylestown law firm Curtin and Heefner. Yeager successfully argued before the Pennsylvania Supreme Court that Act 13 of 2012, amending the state’s Oil & Gas law, violated the environmental rights amendment in the state Constitution.
The Mars group hired Yeager to educate municipal leaders regarding their zoning rights in the face of shale gas drilling. They have sent a 15-page letter from Yeager on the subject to the Adams and Middlesex supervisors.
Clark said the group also plans to attend council meetings in Mars and Valencia, as well as the supervisors meetings in Pine and Richland townships in Allegheny County as they would be included in the two-mile safety zone.
But Clark stressed that the parents are not activists or protestors, and that they want a collaborative, not adversarial, relationship with the supervisors, council members and school board members.
“We don’t want (the wells) near our schools,” Clark said.
On March 11, the Mars School Board rejected a $1 million lease from Rex Energy, the driller for the Geyer wells, to drill horizontally under the district’s 172 acres.
While the rejection was lauded by Clark’s group as well as anti-fracking groups like Marcellus Outreach Middlesex, Rex Energy officials said the Geyer well project will proceed because many landowners around the well site have signed leases.
Geyer said that she feels no one would have noticed her well had Rex Energy not offered the lease to the district.
“We would have just been another farm with a well pad,” Geyer said.
Geyer is familiar with the Marcellus Shale gas industry because she is assistant to county Commissioner Chairman Bill McCarrier, and the gas industry has proliferated in the county.
Geyer also is a member of XTO Energy’s community advisory panel, which she said has allowed her to learn about the industry. She said she meets regularly with Marcellus Shale scientists, engineers, technologists and drillers.
“I know they are abiding by Act 13,” Geyer said.
She said while she does not foresee any problems at the wells on her property, she said that if anything would happen, it would be contained to the well pad.
Geyer said Act 13 contains safety requirements, which she is confident Rex Energy will follow.
“I don’t foresee any problems, but there is always risk in any industry, and this industry is no different,” Geyer said. “I know (Rex Energy) will work very diligently and thoroughly to eliminate risk and liability.”
She said Pennsylvania is second only to Iran in Marcellus Shale gas production, and provides 25 percent of the natural gas used in the U.S. She said the longevity of the average Marcellus Shale gas well is 50 years.
“This industry is here,” Geyer said. “They’re invested long-term in Pennsylvania.”
Clark said his group will continue to work toward educating the municipal leaders and securing the safety zone overlay.
Group member Amy Nassif said she talked with state Sen. Randy Vulakovich, R-40th, about the dangers of drilling near the schools and the lack of awareness on the part of local government officials regarding their rights in shale gas drilling.
She said she called state Rep. Daryl Metcalfe, R-12th, and he offered to meet with the supervisors regarding their zoning rights for drilling.
Metcalfe did not return calls from the Butler Eagle on Friday regarding his stance on a potential safety zone overlay around the Mars schools.
Nassif said the parent group plans to schedule a public meeting soon “to educate the community about everything the group has learned and everything that’s happened since March 4.”
She said that date will be announced soon.
Regarding the Geyer wells, Clark said Rex Energy has not yet applied to the state Department of Environmental Protection for a permit.
Geyer confirmed that work at her farm will begin once a permit is issued from the DEP.