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December 10, 2012

Prelegislative talk: Drilling at the core of Garrett concerns

MCHENRY — Garrett County residents discussed and requested legislation pertaining to Marcellus Shale drilling during the annual prelegislative meeting held at Garrett College on Saturday.

Eric Robison, president of the nonprofit group CitizenShale, requested that state Sen. George Edwards not oppose a proposed statutory moratorium on fracking.

According to its Facebook page, CitizenShale seeks to “encourage dialogue and support comprehensive efforts to protect individuals and communities from the wide-ranging impacts of shale gas development.”

“We are not looking for support of the statutory moratorium,” said Robison. “We are just hoping as this moves forward that you won’t oppose it.”

The state moratorium bill, which will be introduced by Heather Mizeur in the House of Delegates and state Sen. Jamie Raskin and others in the Senate, would prevent fracking from occurring in Maryland until the state completes a series of 14 studies laid out in Gov. Martin O’Malley’s 2011 executive order.

“(CitizenShale is) interested in making sure we have what everybody has been talking about good oversight, good protections and that it (drilling) is done safely,” said Robison.

Edwards said he was not thrilled with the idea of supporting the bill.

“We have a moratorium now,” said Edwards. “We already have a process in place to look at this.”

Edwards said Maryland’s Marcellus Shale Safe Drilling Initiative Advisory recently voted unanimously to endorse financial safeguards that would pay for drilling-related problems.

“I think it was a broad-reaching thing trying to protect the interest of everyone,” he said. “I’m not sure (the bill) has easy sailing through the Senate.”  

Robison reiterated that he wasn’t looking for Edwards’ support of the bill, but instead was asking him not to oppose it.

Delegate Wendell Beitzel said he has been supporting the practice for drilling and as a landowner served to gain from drilling.

“I’ve been criticized from potentially benefitting financially from  (drilling),” said Beitzel, who added he would benefit more than those who had Marcellus Shale on their property.

“I believe that we can move forward with this. I will make every effort to make sure it’s done — as you have indicated — as safely as possible. I think we have missed the train here in Garrett County. It is going to be awhile before gas companies come back into this town to look for leases,” Beitzel said.

Friendsville resident Rob Smith said he was concerned about a decrease in his property value and asked where the first well will be drilled if Marcellus Shale drilling is approved.

“I don’t want to live under the shadow of a Marcellus Shale drilling rig,” said Smith. “But, I will be forced to because I won’t be able to sell the property.”

Robison asked for support of a socioeconomic study on how shale development would impact a tourist-based economy proposed to the state commissioners by Dominick E. Murray, deputy secretary of the Department of Business and Economic Development.

Murray has developed a proposed model for the study and additional funds are being sought from Garrett and Allegany counties to provide Murray the software he needs to do the study, according to Robison.

“Having this, we would have a better overview of how industrial development would impact tourism,” said Robison. “It really hasn’t been looked at in an area that is specific to a heavily tourist-based economy.”

The Garrett Chamber of Commerce has expanded its continued support of shale drilling, according to Nicole Christian, president and CEO.

“We have expanded our position on (shale drilling) a little bit and with our partners in Western Maryland we do support the development of an energy corridor that will leverage our energy-rich region.”

Also during the meeting, Edwards discussed Garrett County commissioners’ legislative request authorizing  a $15 million loan for capital improvements at Garrett Memorial Hospital.

The hospital would pay off that debt service at 5.25 percent for 20 years.

The hospital would pay the bondholder directly, according to Donald Battista, the hospital’s president and CEO, who was representing GMH’s board of governors at the meeting.

“The county would be arranging for the financing of those bonds and, through the county, they could get the bonds at a much cheaper rate,” said Beitzel.  

The hospital project includes a new four-story addition to the existing hospital with a focus on improvements to inpatient units and an additional of 42,000 square feet of major renovations.

“It’s an important improvement project. One that I think will help the hospital as a facility really meet the needs of the next 30 years,” said Battista.   

The total cost of the project is $23.5 million and includes a $15 million request from the county and $8.5 million in cash contributions and fundraising,  Battista said.

“We are in the throes of several state organizations that require approval of the project. They have given us an indication verbally that they will support that approval process,” said Battista.

“We hope to have that approval in place prior to you taking this legislation to the legislature.”

Contact Elaine Blaisdell at eblaisdell@times-news.com.

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