WHEELING - Chesapeake Energy officials do not believe the natural gas drilling site they are building about 0.4 miles from Wheeling Park High School and its nearly 1,700 students will cause any problems for the community.
However, local lawyer Robert Fitzsimmons believes having a well pad this close to his farm may contaminate a water well he uses to provide water for livestock. He has filed an official objection to the drilling site with the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection.
"Given the sensitivities involved with this well site, we are actively engaged with key stakeholders with the coordination of our activities," said Stacey Brodak, Chesapeake's senior director of corporate development. "As always, Chesapeake keeps lines of communication open with the community."
Photos by Casey Junkins
Fracking trucks like this are traveling on Ohio Valley roads carrying material to and from natural gas drilling sites.
Traveling from the area of the Wheeling Park pool and water slide up Sonneborne Road, commonly known as "Wheeling Park Hill," traffic will turn left onto Park View Road to reach the well site. A set of wooden stakes with pink ribbons marks the planned road that would lead to a well pad on the side of Park View Road.
A road test Tuesday showed these wooden stakes sit about 0.4 miles from the recently opened J.B. Chambers Performing Arts Center at the high school.
As Chesapeake continues drilling more wells throughout West Virginia's Northern Panhandle, the chances for some of the well sites to be located near schools increases. Brodak does not see the Park View Road location as a problem for her company, though.
"We can safely drill in any environment, and as the most active driller of wells in the United States, we do so every day. The disturbance caused by development is limited and short term in nature," she emphasized. "The benefits, however, from clean energy production, job creation and royalties to landowners are very long term."
Information from the West Virginia Secondary Schools Activities Commission shows that Wheeling Park is the fifth largest high school in the Mountain State with nearly 1,700 students. Only Cabell Midland, Parkersburg, Martinsburg and Hedgesville high schools have more students than WPHS.
Ohio County Schools spokesman Gabe Wells said the school district would have no comment on the project near WPHS, referring questions to the property owner.
According to Ohio County property records, the land on which the well will be drilled is owned by the "Parks System Trust Fund of Wheeling." This Chesapeake lease is signed by members of the Wheeling Park Commission, which oversees the operations of the Oglebay Resort and Wheeling Park.
G. Randolph Worls is now the president of the Oglebay Foundation and is the former president of the trust fund. He emphasized the trust is a private, nonprofit organization that is "totally" separate from the park commission. The current board members of both bodies are the same.
"The trust was established to help the park commission perform its mission," said Worls, noting this includes acquiring funds and lands for the parks to help them continue to flourish.
Worls referred all questions regarding the drilling plans to Wheeling lawyer James Gardill, who did not return calls seeking comment.
Ohio County Emergency Management Director Lou Vargo said officials have been formulating an evacuation plan for WPHS - even before learning of the nearby well - just in case an accident would occur at any of the local drilling sites. The strategy would call for students to be sent to WesBanco Arena.
"Having a well in this area is more of a concern than having one in a rural area," he said, noting there are also popular soccer fields and picnic shelters nearby. "If this permit gets approved, we will coordinate with the school district and with Chesapeake to make sure this is as safe as possible for everyone."
Although Fitzsimmons declined to provide additional comment, his objection letter sent to the DEP outlines his belief that this well site may jeopardize well water on a nearby farm he owns.
"The location of the proposed well site in proximity to this water source creates a risk of contamination of the sole and exclusive source of water for the property," Fitzsimmons wrote to the DEP.