County clears up role of Marcellus Shale group
Local residents might be getting confused about the different groups forming to study, watch and mobilize against possible gas drilling in the Marcellus Shale formation in the region, county officials said last week.
Morgan County Commissioner Brenda Hutchinson took time at the November 10 meeting to set the record straight about the county-sponsored study group that has been meeting since the summer.
“Our group is working toward strong regulations and educating the public about gas leases,” said Hutchinson.
The group was assembled with appointees from each of the three commissioners, and tasked with examining the gas drilling issue to see how it might affect county residents and natural resources.
Hutchinson pointed out that two other watch groups, not associated with the county government, have recently gained notice.
One specifically advocates a total ban on fracking, the method used to release natural gas from the shale formation. The group held its first public meeting earlier this month in Great Cacapon.
Another group, called Sky Truth, is a West Virginia-based organization that monitors environmental impacts from activities like gas drilling, oil spills and mountaintop removal.
Hutchinson said both of those groups have different missions than the county group.
“I’m glad you brought that up. People have asked me why the county is sponsoring an activist group. I don’t want any part of that, and the taxpayers are not interested in it,” said Commissioner Brad Close.
Close said he was happy to hear that a representative from the oil and gas industry would be speaking to the county committee soon.
“I’ve read the minutes so far and I’m a little concerned,” Close said.
“It does concern me that a local group is advocating a ban on drilling when they know we can’t do that,” said Commission President Stacy Dugan.
“I think our role is to look at regulations and educate the public,” Hutchinson said. She expects the committee to offer preliminary recommendations soon.
County grants administrator Carol York led the discussion about recent grants received by the county, and those being applied for.
A $5,000 grant meant for work at the Parks & Rec soccer complex was facilitated by State Senator Clark Barnes, said York.
The recreation complex recently was awarded an $80,000 grant, to fund construction of a recreational trail around the ballfield complex along U.S. 522.
The county is applying for a separate grant to fund a phased project to build a North Berkeley Rail/Trail on the northern end of Berkeley Springs.
In other business, county officials approved a bid for $26,000 from Power Connections for a diesel-fueled backup generator for the main 911 tower near War Memorial Hospital. 911 Director Dave Michael said the purchase would be covered by a $32,000 Homeland Security grant. The remainder of the grant will be applied toward the switches and other supplies needed to put the generator into service, Michael said.
Community Service funds
Commissioners also approved a request to apply $9,277 from coalbed methane severance tax monies toward the salary of the county’s new part-time Community Services officer. It will cover the officer’s salary until May 2013, commissioners said.
The one-time severance tax payment to the county can only be used for limited purposes, including regional jail costs, community corrections officers, volunteer fire department expenses or local libraries.
Prosecuting Attorney Debra McLaughlin said her office is in the process of tabulating how much money the rejuvenated Community Service program is saving the county.
Offenders who perform community service might otherwise have to serve jail time, with the county paying $48.80 per day to house them at the regional jail in Martinsburg.
Commissioner Dugan said a conservative estimate sets the savings at more than $8,000 in the few months the officer has been on staff.