School Loses Chance at Grant Due to Ban

Wheeling Intelligencer
14 July 2011
By Warren Scott

Wellsburg Middle School has lost a chance at a $30,000 grant for band instruments because of the city's ban on natural gas drilling.

Officials with Brooke County Schools and Chesapeake Energy, the natural gas company that partly supports the grant, and the state Division of Culture and History, which administers it, confirmed Follansbee Middle School will instead receive the grant.

Karen Gresham, deputy commissioner of the state Division of Culture and History, said the grant comes through the VH1 Save the Music Foundation and Chesapeake Energy, with each contributing evenly. Gresham said for several years the foundation has provided funds for public schools to provide musical instruments to pupils in primary and middle schools to encourage their involvement in the arts.

She said more recently, through the efforts of Randall Reid-Smith, state commissioner of culture and history, a pilot program has been established that pairs funds from the foundation with a business or other partner. Chesapeake Energy is one of a number of partners that has agreed to match the VH1 grants, Gresham said, and such partners may suggest areas where the funding may be awarded.

She said Chesapeake was interested in funding schools in Brooke County, where it has initiated drilling operations, and with the help of Brooke County Superintendent Kathy Kidder, Wellsburg Middle School was targeted for the funds. But before the money was awarded, Wellsburg City Council adopted an ordinance banning natural gas drilling in and within a mile of the city, citing concerns that drilling could contaminate the city's drinking water, which is derived from wells.

Stacey Brodak, Chesapeake spokeswoman, said, "Chesapeake is very proud of our record of philanthropic giving and our efforts to enhance the quality of life in the communities in which we live and work. While we strive to find worthwhile community-support projects that benefit those in the areas where we are approved to operate, it is important that we dedicate our company's resources where they cannot only advance the interests of our shareholders but other stakeholders as well.

"Given the volume of requests we get across the country, it is imperative that we focus our philanthropy where we and our operations are supported by the community and its leaders," Brodak said. "Unfortunately, with the imposition of a ban on our activity for a mile outside the city of Wellsburg, we are not now able to consider the current request for philanthropic gifts in this area. We are hopeful we can work together to eliminate the impediments and opposition to resource development in the area and can once again develop a mutually beneficial partnership with this community."

Chesapeake and other natural gas companies use a process known as hydraulic fracturing to release the gas from the underground Marcellus shale formation. It involves blasting the shale with a fluid that includes 95 percent water and sand and 5 percent various chemicals, some of them toxic.

Gas industry officials say the drilling occurs thousands of feet below water tables and the gas wells are heavily sealed with concrete and steel to prevent the fluid from leaking into the ground.

Opponents point to incidents in which wastewater from the process was spilled outside the wells or methane from abandoned coal mines was released, resulting in fires.