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Greater Latrobe, Derry Area students tackle Marcellus shale at Economic Exchange Day

Date: 5/4/2012

By Dan Scifo

Latrobe Bulletin Staff Writer

Students at Greater Latrobe and Derry Area had an opportunity to see first-hand what happens when industry meets environment and politics, and help tackle the problem. The hot-button issue of Marcellus shale was again at the forefront of the annual Latrobe Area Chamber of Commerce Economic Exchange Day Wednesday at Greater Latrobe’s Center for Student Creativity as students worked with more than 30 industry professionals and tried to develop a solution to a multitude of issues surrounding deep shale drilling.

"I think it’s very exciting that we brought together two school districts. We’re combining the curriculum between environmental science and economics, bringing in all of these community members, and having our students engage with members of the community," said Kara Olecki-Leeper, a Greater Latrobe economics/law educator. "It’s a topic that’s in the news and maybe at home it is brought up and it’s something the community is currently learning about. There are a lot of people in the community who don’t understand the process either, so we’re all learning as we go."

For more than 30 years, the Economic Exchange Day has forced students to think critically about a topic affecting the local community. The event is made possible through a partnership of Greater Latrobe and Derry Area school districts, Latrobe Area Chamber of Commerce, Smart Growth, Latrobe Specialty Steel and Penn State Cooperative Extension.

"Anytime you put kids in an activity where they can be more hands-on, the motivation definitely picks up." Olecki-Leeper said. It’s a good thing because they had a difficult topic to deal with. Students, for the second straight year, addressed Marcellus shale, but this time, instead of simply receiving information, they worked through real-life scenarios that are either currently happening or could take place.

"A lot of scenarios the students are pondering have happened or there’s a chance they could, so putting that real-life aspect into the lesson is beneficial to them," Olecki-Leeper said. She added that it can be difficult to teach sometimes because it’s such a hot-button, multi-pronged issue, affecting so many area residents.  Supporters argue natural gas drilling brings industry, jobs and money to the region, while some detractors argue the harmful effects on the environment outweigh any benefits. There are also questions concerning  taxing large drilling operations and how millions of dollars generated can be divided, in addition to countless other issues.

"I definitely don’t want my opinion to be pushed onto the students and I have to present both sides of the story," Olecki-Leeper said. "It’s really on the students to understand, but even to establish one clear-cut opinion would be difficult."

In an effort to help, the event featured a variety of speakers from businesses and organizations throughout the region, including local government, industry, environmental representatives, public safety, workforce and community development, and lawyers. In the morning, students listened to presentations from Ross Pifer, Penn State University, Dickinson School of Law; Doug Welty, Law Offices of Welty and Welty; James Whitacre, Powdermill Nature Reserve; Erica Clayton Wright, Kennametal Inc.; Jason Rigone, Westmoreland County Industrial Development Corp., and Alan Eichler, Department of Environmental Protection.

"We wanted to make sure we covered the total gamut of people involved in the industry as well as the environmental piece," Olecki-Leeper said. Students, when working through their real-life scenarios, interviewed the industry professionals at the event and used them as resources when attempting to come up with a solution.

"They’re very passionate about what they do," Greater Latrobe senior Brandy Jacobs said of the industry professionals. "We’re getting a lot of information that we didn’t even know." Jacobs’ group tackled a fictitious scenario where an accident occurred on a Marcellus shale rig on a farm in Derry Township. They had to determine not only what emergency personnel had to be called, but also the effects natural gas had on the environment and surrounding houses. The biggest eye-opener for many students was not only how many layers were involved in controversies surrounding Marcellus shale, but also how close to home the topic hit for residents of the area.

"I didn’t realize how many different perspectives there were," said Derry Area senior Tessa Hriczik. "I didn’t know there were so many wells around here and then they showed us a map. I didn’t really think about it that much until today and didn’t realize how many I passed driving to school."

Greater Latrobe senior Alyssia Ong also didn’t realize how many wells were in the area until she found out that nearby Derry Township had 47, the most in Westmoreland County.

"It took me by surprise how many there were," Ong said. "I didn’t think there were that many. After this, I got a lot more information about (Marcellus shale) and how it affects us, so I kind of understand it a lot better now." The students also learned about Act 13, a controversial bill that provides well fees and a formula by which those fees would be distributed to municipalities, but also apparently takes away the power of local zoning regulations set by local government. Unity Township Supervisors Mike O’Barto and John Mylant, in addition to Derry Township Supervisors Vince DeCario and Dan Rullo, spoke out against Act 13 at the meeting, but David Slifka, of Derry Township said he was on the fence because the bill was still in its infancy.

"They covered Act 13 a lot and it seems like a lot of people aren’t happy with it, so I’d like to know why they’re not happy," said Derry Area senior Matt Fickling. Fickling added that he didn’t realize the amount of planning that went into putting up a well.

"I thought they came up, signed a lease for the land, and then dug it up," Fickling said. "It was really interesting to learn everything that went into the planning and how many legal procedures they have to agree on."  Those multiple layers are what educators and professionals tried to present to the students as they tackled the ever-evolving, hotly-contested issue of Marcellus shale.

"The kids are saying I had no idea this much was involved with Marcellus shale coming into our region, and that’s what we want them to see," said Carole Wright, Greater Latrobe environmental/Capstone educator. "We want them to experience that step-back moment where they realize that this is a huge issue that doesn’t affect one aspect. It affects many, many areas."

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