Outgoing Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald (Pittsburgh City Paper photo).
By Jamie Wiggan
PITTSBURGH — Allegheny County Council has overridden County Executive Rich Fitzgerald’s veto on a bill passed earlier this month banning future fracking projects in public parks.
A packed auditorium erupted in applause on Tuesday as the clerk confirmed the motion’s 12-3 passage into the record. More than 40 people spoke out during a public comments session lasting beyond two hours, with most voicing support for the veto override.
“We deserve places where we can hike, bike, and run without inhaling asthma-inducing air pollutants,” said Amanda Waxman of East Liberty. “We deserve places where we can swim without worrying about toxic runoff. We deserve our public parks fracking-free.”
The underlying bill has seized the public’s attention in recent weeks, as environmental advocates have rallied around the measure now preventing the county from entering into industrial lease agreements on public parks.
Moves to legislate the issue began in the aftermath of a 2014 agreement permitting Texas-based Range Resources to drill under the surface of Deer Lakes Park to extract natural gas in a process known as hydraulic fracturing, or simply “fracking.” Supporters say they wanted assurances this kind of deal wouldn’t be repeated.
Fitzgerald has repeatedly defended the Deer Lakes agreement, insisting during a press conference last week that the park has not been impacted because the drills break ground in neighboring land before cutting into park property 7,000 feet below the surface.
Fitzgerald had sought to drum up support around a new bill he introduced as an alternative framework for regulating fracking under parks, but instead he lost a vote during the intervening weeks, taking the final count firmly above the two-third threshold.
Councilor Bob Macey, D-West Mifflin, said despite his overall support for the fracking industry, repeated contact from his electors convinced him to change his stance.
“I’ve heard from my constituents,” Macey said. “So I’m going to change my position and vote ‘yes.’”
Both Republican Councilmembers, Sam DeMarco, North Fayette, and Suzanne Filiaggi, Franklin Park, sided with Fitzgerald, as did Democrat Nicholas Futules, D-Cheswick. DeMarco blasted the bill as “political theater” which he said speaks of a larger movement to end the natural gas industry in the region.
“It’s pretty obvious this bill isn’t about protecting parks,” DeMarco said. “It is part of a broader strategy to threaten job energy security and prosperity in the region by chipping away at the ability to produce natural gas, whenever and wherever possible.”
Several drilling industry workers testified before the vote, insisting fracking is a responsible contributor to the regional economy.
“My job as landman allows me to not only provide for my family, but ensure that our resources are extracted utilizing the most efficient and responsible way possible,” said Bill Carruthers of Franklin Park. “We don’t just work here. We live here and enjoy the same amenities and natural resources as everyone else in the county.”
Some councilmembers who supported the bill acknowledged the concerns of gas industry workers, and said their vote to ban fracking in parks wouldn’t be followed by support for broader anti-fracking legislation.
“As long as there are some in my district, as long as there are some union members’ jobs who are affected by this industry, I’m going to continue to fight to make sure that they are represented through me,” Councilmember Tom Duerr, D-Bethel Park, said after voting for the veto override.
Councilmember Bethany Hallam, D-North Side, a prime sponsor of the bill and vocal advocate, said stringent environmental regulations don’t necessarily lead to workforce cuts.
“There’s this misconception that we have to choose between a healthy environment and good paying union jobs,” Hallam said. “We don’t have to choose, we can have both.”
One council member, DeWitt Walton, D-Hill District, said despite supporting the bill and subsequent veto override, he was concerned the public energy surrounding the bill was overshadowing other important issues like poverty and racial justice.
“My district is just under 49 percent African-American and I have not heard from one African-American in my district to support overriding it,” Walton said. “Not one person of African-American descent spoke here tonight … And so I challenge all of you guys that stood up here and spoke from your heart tonight to fight for economic and social justice for African-Americans.”
Second veto prevails
Immediately after overriding the fracking veto, Council attempted to overturn a second executive veto on a bill passed July 5 that would give the council greater say over executive appointments.Had the bill succeeded, it would have required all director-level appointments to submit to council hearings before taking up their positions. Fitzgerald, and the six who voted against the veto, argued it would impinge on the administration’s right to oversee personnel.
Supporters, including Council President Pat Catena, say it would bring more scrutiny to the hiring process and falls within the council’s shared responsibility over “administration of county operations.”
The measure was introduced following repeated reports on lofty salary hikes among top county officials.
Jamie Wiggan is news editor of Pittsburgh City Paper, where this story first appeared.
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