Drilling yields concerns

ST. CLAIRSVILLE – Having maintained a cottage at Piedmont Lake since 1968, Ted and Swanhild Voneida fear allowing Utica Shale natural gas drilling on nearly 6,600 acres of lake property will jeopardize the area’s future as a recreation destination.

“I am deeply concerned about the health effects of oil and gas drilling,” Ted Voneida said during a Wednesday meeting with representatives from the Muskingum Watershed Conservancy District regarding plans to lease the Piedmont property for drilling. “If you do this, you will violate your own charter.”

Along with Piedmont, the district manages several large eastern Ohio lakes, including Tappan Lake, Clendening Lake and Seneca Lake.

Thousands of ambitious fishermen hoping to hook a catfish, walleye, bass or muskie – along with children participating in 4-H and school-related activities – head to Piedmont Lake every year. The vast majority of the lake itself lies in northwestern Belmont County, while it stretches into southern Harrison County and the northeastern corner of Guernsey County.

As companies drill successful wells in Belmont County, they are now looking to frack under the large lake. On Wednesday, district officials said up to $19 million from the lease signing could be used to improve the Piedmont Lake Marina. However, the Voneidas and several other concerned residents seemed less interested in making improvements than they were in maintaining the area’s health and beauty.

“To say that this is not going to hurt the water quality is absurd,” said Patricia Jacobson of Wheeling.

However, district consultant Tom Tugend said horizontal well failures are rare. Shawn Bennett, spokesman for Energy in Depth Ohio, said any wells would be drilled with “significant” setbacks from the lake itself in an effort to disturb the area as little as possible.

District officials maintain they want to sign a “non-development” lease with a gas company, which would confine the driller’s operations to areas where they would not have a significant impact on those using the lake, or the wildlife contained within.

“I cannot say where the specific wells will be – that will be part of the negotiation with the gas company,” said Mark Swiger, district natural resources administrator. “We are concerned about the impact of these wells on the lake community.”

This was not good enough for New Philadelphia resident Rome Marinelli, who urged district representatives to refuse to lease.

“How can you continue to support drilling for a finite resources when lives are at stake?” he asked.