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Parents protest fracking near schools

Nichole Mazurek, of Middlesex Township, at an anti-fracking protest with her three children, Samantha, 8, Ian, 3, and Alyson 6.

Reid Frazier

Nichole Mazurek, of Middlesex Township, at an anti-fracking protest with her three children, Samantha, 8, Ian, 3, and Alyson 6.

More than 50 protesters stood in front of the Mars Area High School in Middlesex Township, Butler County on Wednesday, bearing signs that said “Ban Fracking Now” and “Stop Fracking by Our Schools”.

The protesters targeted a plan that would allow hydraulic fracturing near local schools. Rex Energy has a permit to drill several wells at the Geyer well site, about a half mile from the high school.

Nichole Mazurek, of Middlesex, said she was concerned for the safety of her three children, all of whom would be headed to schools in the district this fall.

“I’m worried about an explosion, and what are they going to do with 3,500 kids? Where are they going to put them? Where are they going to take them?” Mazurek said.

Mazurek, who lives about a mile from the Geyer site, said she was also worried about contamination for her own water well.

Another parent, Diane Steele, of Mars, said she opposes all fracking, but especially near her six-year-old daughter Raquel’s elementary school.

“If they proceed (with drilling), I don’t know what we’re going to do, I don’t think I’ll allow her to attend. I don’t believe it’s worth the risks,” Steele said.

As drilling expands in Pennsylvania, wells have gotten closer to schools. A 2013 report from the environmental group Penn Environment found 26 wells permitted in the state within a half-mile from a school.

Regulators have taken notice. The Department of Environmental Protection has proposed changes to Chapter 78, the state’s oil and gas regulations, that would add schools and playgrounds to a list of protected “public resources”–like archaeological sites, parks, and game lands.

The rule would allow the DEP to impose conditions on drilling near schools, though the department must prove the conditions are necessary. Those rules would kick in only if the area of disturbance for a well pad is within 200 feet of a school or playground.

That distance is too short, said Raina Rippel, director of the Southwest Pennsylvania Environmental Health Project.

“There is more safety involved if you place this type of drilling activity no closer than a mile,” Rippel said. “Anything closer than a mile, the health risks definitely go up, the exposures go up, and the chances for an accident are that much greater.”

Many of the protesters have been vocal opponents of the Middlesex zoning hearing board’s decision, earlier this year, to uphold an ordinance that would allow drilling in over 90 percent of the municipality.

That decision is currently under appeal at the Butler County Court of Common Pleas, and is the subject of a complex legal battle. Work at the well site was halted until September by a Butler County judge while he reviews the case.

Patrick Creighton, a spokesman for Rex Energy, declined to comment on the case, citing pending litigation.

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