Kathryn Strang clearly remembers her reaction when her mother told her that Allegheny County officials were contemplating drilling for natural gas beneath her beloved Deer Lakes Park.
"I was so mad I started hitting my fists on the table," the 8-year-old said after she spoke in front of Allegheny County Council Nov. 6.
Kathryn, who a year ago started a local environmental group with her younger sister Elizabeth, lives less than a half-mile from Deer Lakes Park. Her family uses the park regularly, for hiking and biking as well as watching wildlife and playing on the playground.
Deer Lakes is the latest battleground in the controversy over drilling for gas in the Marcellus Shale, a layer of stone a mile beneath the earth's surface. Such drilling involves "fracking," the use of highly pressurized fluids to break up the rock and release gas deposits.
Skeptics worry about potential water and air contamination from that practice. "There are just too many unknowns" about the drilling process, says Kathryn's father, George, who accompanied his children to council along with his wife, Joy. "There are a lot of homeowners in the area that use wells for water. And what about air quality?
"I just think we need a lot more research into the long-term health risks before we start drilling under our public parks."
Concern about drilling in county parks began bubbling up late this summer, when Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald issued a request for proposals to drill under Deer Lakes Park in Frazer Township.
Under Fitzgerald's proposal, no well pads — the equipment on the surface that forces fracking liquid down and brings gas up — would be allowed on county land. Drillers would be permitted only to tunnel under the parks from well pads on private property nearby. But opponents have been denouncing the proposal at county-council meetings, while some county councilors have become concerned about the transparency of contract negotiations.
And Republican County Councilor Heather Heidelbaugh, for one, says she has never heard more opposition to a proposal before her. "There has been no other issue where I have received public [feedback] that is 98 percent against drilling in the parks," she said at a Nov. 6 county-council meeting.
Councilor Barbara Daly Danko, meanwhile, has proposed a three-year-hold on drilling beneath county parks, while the county conducts a "thorough examination of the risks and liabilities" of drilling.
"We're not asking for a moratorium on drilling," says Daly Danko. "We are going to be drilling at the airport and probably on other industrial sites owned by the county. Why don't we see how that goes before we begin drilling at our parks?"