WELLSBURG - Wellsburg City Council on May 10 approved the second reading of an ordinance prohibiting natural gas drilling in or within one mile of the city, with Mayor Sue Simonetti breaking a tied vote on the issue.
Simonetti and City Manager Mark Henne told council and others at the meeting they aren't opposed to natural gas drilling but are concerned about the city's water being contaminated by procedures used in the drilling.
A reservoir serving the city is beside property on state Route 27 that Chesapeake Energy is leasing for drilling.
Chesapeake and other natural gas drillers use a process known as hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking," to release the gas from an underground geological formation known as the Marcellus shale.
The process involves blasting water mixed with sand and chemicals, some of them known to cause cancer, into the rock through wells drilled hundreds of feet into the ground.
Natural gas drillers have said the process is safe because the water and chemicals are injected far below groundwater levels.
But some environmental experts point to incidents in which wastewater from the process was spilled outside the wells or methane from abandoned coal mines was released, resulting in fires.
The state of Maryland has filed suit against Chesapeake, alleging a well failure in Bradford County, Pa. resulted in wastewater being spilled into Towanda Creek, which flows into Maryland's Susquehanna River.
Violators of the ordinance may be fined up to $500, and the city may seek an injunction against the drilling.
Chesapeake officials said the spill had no effect on fish there and the wastewater couldn't be detected a short distance away. Supporting Wellsburg's ordinance were First Ward Councilman Mike Mitchell, 2nd Ward Councilman Ron Michaux and 3rd Ward Councilman Randy Fletcher.
Opposed were 1rst Ward Councilman Bruce Hunter and 4th Ward Council members Della Serevicz and Jeff Tarr.
Second Ward Councilwoman Tammy Provenzano and 3rd Ward Councilman Bill Smith didn't attend the meeting.
Tarr, Serevicz and Hunter each said they also want to protect the city's water but are concerned the ordinance will bring the city into a lengthy and costly legal battle.
The concern also was voiced by those who supported the ordinance.
"It's a double-edged sword," said Mitchell.
Michaux said he was sorry more residents leasing property to gas drillers weren't present to express their opinion.
Council did hear from Mike Riggle, who owns 30 acres by the reservoir.
Riggle, who asked to speak to council only after their vote, said he respects the board's concern about water contamination but "will do whatever we have to do to fight this, legally or whatever."
Riggle said the ordinance is unfair because he isn't a resident and can't vote for any of the officials who have affected the use of his property.
City Solicitor Bill Cipriani acknowledged many have questioned whether the city may exert power outside its borders.
But he said such action is permitted through West Virginia Code 8-12-19, which states cities may exert authority within a mile outside their borders if needed to efficiently exercise the powers given them by state code.
Stacey Brodak, director of corporate development for Chesapeake, said following the meeting that the company wanted council to table the ordinance until representatives could meet with city officials and discuss their concerns.
"We understand their major concern is the city water supply. We believe their concerns could be allayed with scientific data and information. We have requested the opportunity to provide such information prior to their vote on the subject," Brodak said.
"Additionally, we believe this decision could be challenged legally as it would be a denial of the rights of those that have signed leases to have natural gas produced from their property," she added.
Chesapeake spokeswoman Amy Duggan delivered a similar statement to council prior to its vote.
Hunter suggested tabling the ordinance until it heard from Chesapeake officials at a meeting that had been set tenatively for May 24.
Henne said Chesapeake had been invited to meet with city officials but it was contingent upon their response to the proposed ordinance, which they had failed to do until Tuesday's council meeting.
He said he and Simonetti attended informational meetings involving Chesapeake officials in Wheeling and Beech Bottom that failed to alleviate their concerns.
Henne said he would like to see the city and Chesapeake negotiate for conditions that would address but but the city needs the ordinance for its own protection.
Simonetti said she believes natural gas drilling "has been good for this area" by providing it an economic boost, but is concerned about the long-term environmental impact.
"We don't know what the outcome of this is going to be 50 years down the road," she said.
Henne invited Chesapeake officials to participate in a public meeting on natural gas drilling to be held from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. May 24 at the Wellsburg Fire Hall.
The city manager encouraged Chesapeake to discuss its procedures and address his and others' concerns but said other experts on the subject not affiliated with the company also will be invited.
(Scott can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.)