Prove your humanity

At hearing Wednesday night on a proposal to drill for natural gas at a U.S. Steel facility in the eastern Pittsburgh suburbs, dozens of residents and environmentalists lined up to speak out against the plan, as well as grill state officials and company representatives with questions.

New Mexico-based Merrion Oil and Gas wants to drill at the Edgar Thomson plant next year to supply natural gas to the steelmaking facility. It has already secured some approvals from municipalities in the path of drilling, and now it’s seeking several permits from the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection. In addition to building a wellpad and drilling in the Marcellus Shale, the company also plans to build access roads and two pipelines, including one for gas and one for water.

Wednesday’s hearing in Braddock began with Merrion representatives explaining plans for the project and DEP officials outlining permit requirements. But it soon evolved into a contentious string of questions and criticism from attendees.

Megan McDonough, municipal ordinance project organizer with Food & Water Watch, wondered why municipalities like East Pittsburgh and North Versailles did not host public hearings before they granted approvals for the project.

“Everyone in this room is here because it is painfully obvious that those of us that are residents of the Mon Valley have become the sacrifice zone for the rest of Allegheny County,” she said.

McDonough lives in Elizabeth along the Monongahela River near other U.S. Steel facilities. The steelmaker is under scrutiny amid problems at one of those plants, Clairton Coke Works, after a December fire destroyed pollution controls.

Rachel Priselac of Forest Hills lives within 2 miles of the proposed wells. She has a 3-year-old daughter who experiences breathing problems aggravated by pollution, and she’s worried about emissions from additional truck traffic in the area.

She said she would like to have another child, and cited a study showing that infants born to mothers who live close to natural gas sites have a higher risk of low birth weight.

“What I can’t do is pick up and move my family away from our home because you have chosen to drill here,” she said. “To find out that something will have such a massive impact upon the health of your daughter and hopefully your future child is horrifying, and to feel that something is so out of your control is just shattering.”

Other residents expressed concerns over safety. The project is slated for a populated area.

Merrion and the DEP said the company’s emergency response plan would be made public. The company will be able to shut down the gas wells on-site and remotely, said Ryan Davis, operations manager for Merrion.

He acknowledged that the drilling and fracking phases could bring about extra traffic and other nuisances to nearby communities.

“We’ve gone through a ton of planning for this project to minimize those impacts,” he said.

He said lighting will be directed downward where possible, and trains might be used to transport sand for the fracking process. If the company opts not to rely on rail, he estimated it would take 300 truckloads of sand to service the site.

A DEP spokesperson said there’s no set timeline for when a decision will be made on the company’s permit applications, though it will likely come within months.

This story is produced in partnership with StateImpact Pennsylvania, a collaboration among The Allegheny Front, WPSU, WITF and WHYY to cover the commonwealth's energy economy.