More Marcellus shale discussion outcrops at commission meeting
A Hillsboro business owner's analysis of how potential Marcellus shale gas drilling could impair her livelihood brought out a crowd to the county commission meeting last Tuesday. About two dozen speakers both validated and vilified the idea that a possible short-term boom could mean a long-term bust for Pocahontas County's tourism industry.
Marcellus shale is a natural gas-rich strata that underlies large sections of West Virginia, Pennsylvania and New York. The shale is about a mile deep near Marlinton. Companies began buying leases in Pocahontas County about four years ago. The gas and oil drilling industry is not regulated by local governments, but by the West Virginia Legislature. Local governments, can, however, regulate some of the surrounding activities like traffic, water use and noise. Drilling in Marcellus shale, and the practice of hydrofracturing rock for gas, is considered by some environmentalists as dangerous to water supplies because of the amount of water used to hydro-frack a well and the number of unknown chemicals used in the process.
A West Virginia University geology professor told the commission in November that he didn't believe Pocahontas County would be in the "fairway" of gas drilling because the gas here is neither as pure or abundant as in other areas, and because the county has no infrastructure to move the gas to a market.
Blair Sharp Campbell said Tuesday she talks to everyone who eats at her Pretty Penny Caf�, and finds that her customers are fairly divided into equal thirds of local residents, second home owners and tourists.
"They come here to escape the concrete jungle in the chemical valley," she said. "They come because they want to breathe the air; they want to hike; they want to bike; they want to fish in the streams."
Campbell said she spent about $10,000 on local foods from Pocahontas and Greenbrier counties last year. Spending her money with local growers, she said, helps support a sustainable industry.
"Tourism is what drives our economy now," she continued. "We're better off with that than we are bringing in big industry like gas drilling. I don't feel it's useful for us in this county."
According to wvcommerce.org, Pocahontas County took in $85.1 million in direct spending in tourism-related businesses in 2010.
Campbell also pointed out that she has had so much trouble finding workers for her restaurant that she's not opening the Watoga Restaurant this summer.
"I can't find somebody to wash dishes. I can't imagine they're going to find people to build gas wells," she said.
A pair of young men who grew up here supported Campbell's argument against drilling in Marcellus shale.
Nathaniel Sizemore, of Hillsboro, said he and his wife had grown up here, gone away to college and then moved to Colorado. From there, they went to California, he said to the "heart of the Silicon Valley."
Sizemore said that while trying to count the stars from his yard one night, he could see only 14 because of the light pollution from San Francisco "and the surrounding sprawl."
"It hit me that I didn't want my kids to grow up there," he said. Sizemore, and his wife, Hannah, the parents of twin boys, made their way back to Pocahontas County where they could "catch frogs in the creek...see black bears and deer and foxes in their backyard."
"I didn't realize what I had until I left it behind," he said. "We've got something extremely valuable here."
Sizemore urged the commission to continue to gather facts about drilling in Marcellus shale and the accompanying practice of hydrofracking.
"Let's not gamble on something that everyone in this room holds precious," he concluded.
Like Sizemore, Andrew Must is a Pocahontas County native who went away to college, but found he was drawn to the mountains.
"This is where I really want to be," Must said. "The reason I'm here is the uniqueness of the place. I love what it has to offer [that] becomes more unique every year as the rest of the country is degraded by the very practices [we're talking about]. We have a great place to start creative new ventures and to maintain the pristine nature."
Must said he has started his own business.
Must and Sizemore were joined by a relative newcomer, Joe Heathcock, who said he chose to live in Pocahontas County. Heathcock said he has started a small organic farm.
"Fracking is a shortsighted fix," he said. "It will not benefit the health of the people of the county. It's definitely a boom-and-bust industry. To rush ahead is not only foolhardy, it's a bad deal. Who is going to protect the health of the local people? This place is going to be permanently changed. I would like to stay here for my whole life."
Those voices were in discord with the group on the other side of the room-those who believe Pocahontas County is quickly losing economic ground, and those who believe that any attempt to regulate drilling for gas in Marcellus shale will result in regulation for landowners.
"Marcellus shale mirrors the Gold Rush," said Sheets Garage owner Charles Sheets. Sheets related a story he'd been told about a woman in another county who, along with her daughter, had made $300 in one day operating a hot dog stand in front of their home.
Sheets said the county needs more business.
Jacob Meck, who operates several businesses in Green Bank, two of which deal in solid and liquid waste. Meck said he doesn't believe it is fair to burden one community with another's waste. By the same token, he said, Pocahontas County residents use their share of energy.
"We need to be part of the solution when it comes to energy," Meck said.
Casey Wallace, who owns Judy Fencecraft in Bartow, said he's concerned that some county residents aren't happy with any industry.
"We've managed to pinch off all the timber sales; we've managed to eliminate coal," he said. "People need jobs and they're plenty capable of work."
Wallace said he is also worried about the erosion of property rights.
"I ask you, I beg you to consider what we're all doing here tonight, very, very carefully," he continued. "One of our Constitutional rights is private property rights. We need to think through what we are trying to accomplish here."
That may be harder to determine, as the last large public gathering on the Marcellus shale issue resulted in a nearly unanimous decision to keep the issue off the ballot.
Commissioner Jamie Walker said he has noticed a decline in the number of bus drivers in the years he's held that job. Walker said he can count on one hand the number of students on his bus who plan to stay in Pocahontas County post high school graduation. He chalked that up to older residents being reluctant to let any industry get a foothold.
"Everybody is against everything in this county," he said. "I stay in the woods every day I can; I hate to see it get ruined, but sooner or later we're going to have to accept something if we want our kids to stay here."
Commission president David Fleming said that the issue was on the agenda because a local business owner wanted to speak, and he believed the commission should hear her views. Fleming said commissioners are working on a forum that will present both sides of the issue.
In other business, commissioners:
ﾕheld an executive session with their attorney, Duane Ruggier, on a legal matter.
ﾕscheduled budget work sessions.
ﾕapproved hiring Gary Kramer as a full-time deputy clerk in the county clerk's office.
ﾕdiscussed procedures to demolish buildings at East Fork Industrial Park, after a letter from the Bureau of Public Health raised concerns about the possibility of asbestos.
ﾕapproved a letter of support to the West Virginia Public Service Commission for the Pocahontas Public Service District in regard to the new location of the Slaty Fork Wastewater Treatment Plant.
ﾕapproved a $10,000 grant resolution for High Rocks For Girls through the Governor's Community Participation Grant Program.
The commission meets again in regular session Tuesday, March 6, at 8:30 a.m.