Fracking ban in Allegheny County parks passes county council

County Executive Rich Fitzgerald vowed to veto the ordinance in a statement released immediately after county council's vote.

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Deer Lakes Park. Allegheny County approved hydraulic fracturing underneath the Tarentum park in 2014. Photo: Allegheny County Parks Conservancy.

Allegheny County Council passed a bill Tuesday night that would ban natural gas drilling inside or underneath Allegheny County parks.

Immediately after council’s session, County Executive Rich Fitzgerald released a statement announcing he will veto the bill, saying the decision should fall to the future county executive and county council members.

“I fully support a move from fossil fuels to sustainable energy,” tweeted Fitzgerald. “But I won’t make decisions for those future officials, and neither should council. I will veto this bill when it reaches me.”

The bill, which passed 11-4, would prohibit Allegheny County from “entering into any lease, sale and/or any other agreements that would permit or otherwise facilitate private and/or public entities to engage in any industrial or commercial land uses, on the surface or below the surface of any lands Allegheny County has designated as a park.”

A two-thirds majority, or 10 votes, is necessary to override a county executive’s veto, meaning the ordinance could still become law provided no more than one councilperson who voted for the ban changes their position after Fitzgerald’s action.

In 2014, Fitzgerald signed a bill passed by county council that allowed for natural gas to be extracted from under Deer Lakes Park in Tarentum. The new legislation would not apply retroactively to Deer Lakes, but would prevent the operation from expanding.

The county executive has long touted the industry’s economic impact. On Tuesday, WTAE quoted Fitzgerald as saying “I would hate to see a signal that gives a false signal that says Allegheny County doesn’t want to do energy production, particularly in light of where we are nationally and internationally right now, and natural gas has been such a big part of Allegheny County’s resurgence over the last 10 years.”

County council held a public hearing on the potential fracking ban June 9, and several members of the public spoke in support of the bill during public comment at the July 5 meeting.

The bill passed over the objections of Councilperson Suzanne Filiaggi, who expressed concerns that the county could be exposed to lawsuits over perceived vagueness in the language ordinance, which prohibits commercial agreements as well as “any other land uses that are not directly associated with the public’s recreational use and enjoyment of county parks.” She argued that dozens of public-private partnerships could be at risk when their contracts are up for renewal if there is an adverse reading of the ordinance.

Councilmembers DeMarco, Futules and Macey joined Filiaggi in voting against the ban.

“I think we can make the business case for almost anything,” said Councilperson Paul Klein, who dedicated his “yes” vote to his predecessor Barbara Daly Danko, who led council opposition to fracking in 2014, and passed away in 2015.

“Just because there’s a financial benefit to be realized from this endeavor in the past doesn’t mean that it should trump other considerations,” said Klein, “like attempting as best we can to protect the sanctity of these important community assets from commercial intrusion.”

In other business, county council rejected by one vote a bill that would require salary salary reports to be presented to county council before the county budget is submitted. As the Independent reported, the bill was largely in response to massive pay raises for Rich Fitzgerald’s inner circle in recent years.

Opponents of the legislation said that the information is already publicly available, but ordinance co-sponsor and Council President Pat Catena pushed back by saying individual salary increases aren’t disclosed to council members prior to budget discussions, and as a result, he will refuse to vote for budgets moving forward until such information is disclosed ahead of time to council.

A similar bill in which council sought to assert its oversight of the county executive’s office passed 8-7. The ordinance requires council’s approval for the appointment of departmental directors and equivalent positions. Opponents of the bill, like Councilperson Sam DeMarco, said that the move could be used by an adversarial council to “kneecap” an incoming county executive’s appointments and agenda.

Councilman Tom Duerr introduced a bill that would keep abortion legal in Allegheny County if a statewide ban were enacted. That bill, along with another bill that would deprioritize the enforcement of laws criminalizing abortion, were sent to committee for further discussion.

Two others provided commentary at the end of the hearing: Burton Comensky, Duquesne resident and school board member, advocated for a park in Duquesne’s Orchard Park housing development, saying space for it already exists on the county-owned property and that the nearest park is 3/4 of a mile away: “Just because these kids live in Duquesne, it does not mean they should lack facilities to play other than the streets.”

Finally, a statement attributed to Brian Englert, President of the Allegheny County Prison Employees Independent Union, was read, urging council to implement a hiring bonus to entice new correctional officers to seek employment at the county jail, and also urged council to follow the lead of 911 dispatchers and allow non-county residents to apply for guard positions, as ways to deal with a shortage of some 60 guards.