Board To Seek Well Defense

June 9, 2012

WHEELING - The Ohio County Board of Education on Friday explored its legal options in the event permits to conduct natural gas drilling near Wheeling Park High School are approved, which may occur any day now that the public comment period has closed.

School officials in a letter appealed directly to West Virginia Department of Environmental Secretary Randy Huffman in an effort to prevent Chesapeake Energy from drilling near the school.

Also filing objections during the 30-day period were the Ohio County Commission and several members of the public.

The proposed site is about 1,300 feet from the high school, more than twice the legal limit for wells to be located from an "occupied dwelling," but objections cite concerns over potential health hazards and consequences of inexperienced drivers sharing the road with drilling trucks, among others.

The land on which the well would be drilled is owned by the Parks System Trust Fund of Wheeling, and the lease is signed by members of the Wheeling Park Commission.

Board of education attorney Patrick Casey said park commission attorney James Gardill has not yet fulfilled his request for information related to the proposed drill site. The two have been unable to meet in person, but Casey said he believes Gardill is open to "finding common ground."

"So basically the Park Commission and their counsel is just sitting there - or at least not helping us," Board of Education President Erik Schramm said. "They haven't expressed an interest in caring for our children or those folks at Wheeling Park High School, I take it."

Gardill did not return calls seeking comment Friday.

Fellow board of education attorney Kevin Coleman said there is no time restriction on when the DEP must rule on the applications.

"But we could also assume that (the DEP) could issue the permits Monday," Casey said. "Chesapeake has made it clear publicly, and to us, that they intend to move forward the minute they get the permit."

No Chesapeake representative could be reached for comment Friday.

Board members discussed legal options with Casey and Coleman behind closed doors during an executive session, but Casey said no legal action will be taken until the DEP approves Chesapeake's permits, if at all.

"The board is resolved to fulfill its mission and protect the students, and they're prepared to move forward in whatever avenue is necessary," Casey said.

Coleman said he forwarded the high school's evacuation plan to the DEP. He also filed a Freedom of Information Act request with DEP, seeking a copy of Chesapeake's permit application to drill in Oglebay Park, which called for the closing of Oglebay Stables. Park commissioners objected to that proposed site, and it subsequently never developed at that location. Coleman is also seeking the DEP's records of investigations conducted into the approximately 12 citations he claimed Chesapeake has received since October.