SLOVAN – While more than 100 local government officials convened inside the Slovan VFW building in Smith Township Thursday for an invitation-only Marcellus Shale Coalition event, four anti-fracking activists waged their own discussion outside.
Craig Stevens of Montrose, who kept a hand-held copy of the Constitution in his back pocket, decried the event, arguing officials were not being educated by the coalition, but rather “indoctrinated” by the Marcellus Shale industry.
At times, the conversation grew heated, as Stevens confronted Steve Forde, vice president of policy and communications for the coalition and asked him about water contamination. Stevens held out a stack of fake bills and asked, “How much can I pay you to poison your own kids?”
Forde slapped the bills out of his hand and said, “I appreciate you telling me how to raise my children.” Smith Township police Chief Bernie LaRue stood by during the exchange, but all parties kept the peace, and the discussion continued without incident.
Inside, the discussion was less animated. Officials from more than 25 municipalities across Washington County listened to presentations on the state Act 13 and impact fees, and afterward had the chance to ask questions about the industry. Joy Ruff, community outreach manager of the coalition, described the sessions as “educational workshops” the coalition holds periodically throughout the region. Sen. Tim Solobay, D-Canonsburg, who helped organize the event hosted by Smith Township, said similar briefings have been held over the past month in Greene County and the mid-Mon Valley.
Solobay said the purpose of the event was to discuss impact fees and ensure local officials were “aware of the funding that has been presented, what has been part of the Act 13 dollars that are coming back to the municipalities, how it’s divided, how it can be used and then ask if there’s any questions that anybody is having, whether good, bad or indifferent as far as the industry itself.”
Ruff said members of the media have not been invited to these briefings because the coalition wants elected officials to feel comfortable asking questions without fear of being quoted by a reporter. An Observer-Reporter staff writer was asked to leave the VFW building once presentations began Thursday, but coalition officials later reversed that decision and allowed the reporter to stay.
The four activists were not permitted to attend because the event was specifically geared toward elected officials, particularly township supervisors, who had questions about impact fees, Forde said. According to Act 13, impact fees generated by natural gas drilling could be used by townships for infrastructure, recreational facilities or social services, to name a few options.
“This is $400 million in new revenue that has never been generated previously in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and never delivered to townships, and there are a lot of questions that local officials have,” Forde said. “This is a remarkable influx of dollars into our communities.”
Despite being open to government officials, State Rep. Jesse White, D-Cecil, said he never received an invitation and only heard about the event from other officials. White sent one of his staff members to attend the event in his place, but questioned why his opponent, Paul Walsh, a Burgettstown attorney, was invited despite not being an elected official.
“That was the thing that mystified me,” White said. “On the one hand, we’re being told it was for elected officials only, and then, lo and behold, my announced opponent is there working the room, and he’s not an elected official at all. To me, it’s been more like a Tim Solobay–sponsored political event.”
Solobay said Thursday that a few independent contractors and representatives from the MarkWest natural gas processing plant in Chartiers Township were also at the event.
Stevens, along with activists Ray Kemble, of Dimock, Robert Lee McCaslin, of Bath, N.Y., and Randy Moyer, of Portage, said he travels around the region to raise awareness about environmental and property issues pertaining to Marcellus Shale drilling.
Stevens said they were not planning a protest, but wanted to attend the event to speak with elected officials.
“We try to come and ask a few serious questions at meetings in front of elected officials and guess what we get – thrown out,” Stevens said.