Elk County officials discussed the local government's advanced knowledge of Marcellus Shale development and unveiled detailed maps Tuesday morning to better educate the taxpayers.
According to Jim Abbey, director of the county's information technology/geospatial information systems [IT/GIS] department, officials have recently undertaken the task of plotting all well site activity within the county.
"The county website right now has a map with all the permitted well sites within the county," Abbey said. "These maps are now being made at the municipal level now."
Abbey showed maps of Highland and Jones townships, two "hotbeds" for well activity.
"I chose to show these two first since that's where most of the oil and Marcellus activity is, even though we do have some to the south," Abbey said. "These give you an idea of what we have and it shows the traditional oil fields as well. Probably by the end of the week or early next week, I plan on having a municipal map on the web for a more personal level to get a better idea, view and scale about where things are in relation to your location.
"These are just a series of maps that we plan on doing. This is just another way to get more information out to the community."
The county's website is www.co.elk.pa.us/ .
The maps also show land designated as public, state game lands, and state parks.
"I do have designation for where the watersheds are as well," Abbey said. "This is just the beginning in a series and I'm sure we'll have more requests down the road.
"I think all but two or three of the permitted Marcellus sites are on public land. It doesn't mean they're actually being drilled, they've just been permitted and approved by DEP, and that spot is reserved."
The presentation Tuesday morning to commissioners was prompted by a planning department meeting held last week regarding land use.
"I think every municipality but one was represented and the intent of that meeting kind of got pulled to the side because of continued questions about Marcellus Shale development," said Matt Quesenberry, director of the county's planning department. "We thought maybe it would be useful to provide an update of some of the county's activities.
"One thing to remind everyone about is that Elk County does have a Marcellus Shale task force and (it) has been meeting monthly now for almost the last two years. During that time, we've encouraged municipal officials and other stakeholders to give presentations, provide input and give us some direction on moving forward and what we might want to discuss in the future."
Stakeholders who comprise that task force include county government officials; Elk County Commissioner June H. Sorg is acting chairperson for the entity.
"We're most appreciative of her leadership," Quesenberry said. "We have a real estate committee, a committee geared toward education and a community and economic development and local government committee.
"I'm in charge of the local zoning part of it and we have a public safety committee and an environmental safety committee as well."
Over the last few years, task force members have had various opportunities to listen to speakers from Penn State Cooperative Extension, the Conservation District and the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP).
"A representative from Shell gas has been here as well and the DEP," Quesenberry said.
The first gas expo was held in October 2010 and was hosted by Elk County.
"We were thankful that we were able to kind of take a leadership role in that among the four counties, Clearfield, Elk, Cameron and Jefferson," Quesenberry said. "It drew 160 exhibitors, including educational workshops, and we estimate the attendance to be between 1,500 and 3,000 people.
"There again, we recognized that we'd have an opportunity to get our businesses linked up with the industry folks to determine how we can best take economic advantage of the opportunities."
An evening seminar this summer is also reportedly being organized for June 15 in St. Marys, with a definite time and location to be determined.
"We're tentatively scheduling this to have speakers come in to discuss sort of an overview of Marcellus Shale as we're still thinking that there's a lot of uncertainty out there, a lot of people that still don't really know what all this is about," Quesenberry said. "We intend to have someone there from the industry to explain the process of what someone would do if they wanted to come in to drill in the area, sort of the ABCs process, and finally, we're hoping to have someone come in to talk about property issues, leasing, those types of things."
The planning director also discussed the two private foundation grants that the county's Conservation District acquired to offset costs associated with a monitoring system for water quality.
"They're wanting to go out and establish locations where municipalities that might be using intakes for public water systems have the opportunity to create some baseline data so that as the water comes in, they can determine if there are any impacts from drilling activities," Quesenberry said. "If you're able to, as municipal officials, to provide sites where a monitoring station should be, for that monitoring station to start, you're encouraged to contact (Elk County Watershed Specialist) Kim Bonfardine.
"It's starting now but it will be an ongoing process. Anyone interested in working with Kim or on the activities is certainly encouraged to contact her."
For Elk County Commissioner Daniel R. Freeburg, the updates served as a much-needed reminder that progress is being made. The commissioner also said he was baffled by the state-of-the-art technology involved in such a monitoring system.
"These streams that directly supply water to communities will have a monitoring station that collects the data and automatically sends it via internet to where it will be stored and processed," Freeburg said. "In addition to that, there are about 20 different stations where they will manually draw the samples and collect them.
"It's extremely comprehensive and certainly the emphasis on the water source streams is important, and that's something that the taxpayers and residents need to know, that this is coming into place very quickly to pick up on any kind of dangerous contaminants, whether it's related to Marcellus industry or something else."
According to Elk County Commissioner Ronald T. Beimel, the people monitoring the stations will be senior volunteers who have gone through an extensive studying and training program.
"The one thing about the commissioners, about three and a half years ago we said that our most important asset in the county is the water and that we're not opposed to drilling-- we always wanted to go slow and we have been, and the county has been out in the forefront to protect our safe drinking water for our constituents," Beimel said. "It's important for everyone to know that we're monitoring this out there, protecting the watersheds and voicing our opinions on a state and national level."
As the wave of Marcellus Shale activity becomes more and more apparent, Freeburg said these topics are on taxpayers' minds.
"It's something on the mind of almost everyone that you run into on the street nowadays," Freeburg said. "There is a misconception that [county officials] are doing nothing about this-- some people will say, 'Well, the county isn't doing anything about it' or they'll say, 'Why isn't the county doing more about it?'
"It's important that if you put together everything that we've been doing, it's extremely complex and there is a lot going on at the county level with these issues, and the other real important thing is the Pennsylvania Oil and Gas Act that dictates how all this happens through the DEP, the permitting and so on.
"We spoke directly with Speaker of the House Sam Smith, [senator Joe] Scarnati and Representative [Matt] Gabler, and Smith is presently working on amending that act. That is also something that is big and [county officials] understand-- we're drinking the water here, too."