Former Moon resident Gary Sheffler said his civil engineering firm PVE Sheffler struggled in the years after U.S. Airways abandoned its hub and cut flights at Pittsburgh International—a move that triggered a downturn in the overall airport corridor economy.
"To put a personal face on this, my company went from 15 employees down to three employees," said Sheffler, speaking before hundreds Thursday at a public hearing at Robert Morris University.
The burgeoning natural gas drilling industry in Western Pennsylvania has helped his company grow to hire a staff of 70, he said.
"I would have a hard time telling 70 people with families and kids, 'I think we have got to shut it down because of the environment,' " he said.
Allegheny County Council is now considering a 20-year agreement with Cecil-based energy provider Consol Energy to extract shale gas from county-owned land surrounding Pittsburgh International Airport. Most of that land is in Findlay and Moon townships.
The deal would also include drilling on county airport land in West Mifflin. County council did not act on the measure at the hearing, which drew hundreds to RMU's Sewall Center to address council members and listen to remarks on the issue.
More than 70 people spoke at the hearing. Sheffler's comments were met with jeers from some attendees, dozens of whom in their remarks urged the council to vote against the drilling agreement.
"I have a vast reservoir of common sense," said Matt Peters, of Hazelwood. "My common sense says the fracking process itself is just no damn good. And what we have (at the hearing) is a show, a pretend democracy."
Under the proposed agreement, Consol has agreed to pay the airport authority a lump sum of $50 million in addition to an 18-percent royalty on annual natural gas proceeds generated from airport land.
The deal could net more than $500 million for the airport, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
Most people who addressed the council spoke out against the natural gas drilling industry. They expressed concern that the hydraulic fracturing process, which culls natural gas from a well that runs parallel to the shale formation, creates health risks for the public.
Pittsburgh resident Joni Rabinowitz compared those potential risks to that of "asbestos and smoking."
Many said they fear drilling could pollute drinking water or expose airport-area residents to a variety of carcinogens.
"I'm tired of Pennsylvanians being the Guinea pigs," said Claudia Detwiler, of Pittsburgh. "I know people who are sick (from water contamination associated with drilling) and no one is helping them."
When the hearing opened, Consol Energy executives and some area lawmakers addressed the board, each touting new jobs the natural gas industry has created in other parts of the state.
"I encourage you to seize this opportunity," said Washington County Commissioner Diane Irey Vaughn.
"This is not a question of resources," said Consol Energy CEO Nicholas DeIuliis. "We are an energy-rich region."
Some in the audience heckled DeIuliis while he spoke.
Many who attended the meeting said the environmental hazards associated with drilling are too steep to risk. One speaker called shale extraction "a heinous process."
"There is no safe way to frack," said Jennifer Myers in her remarks to the council. "There's just no safe way."
The Federal Aviation Administration mandates that all gas proceeds from airport land must be used towards improving the airport, including its properties and facilities.
Before drilling can take place, Consol's plan must be reviewed and approved by Findlay and Moon officials to ensure it complies with local zoning regulations. Both communities permit drilling, though no shale extraction has yet taken place in the municipalities.
State Rep. Mark Mustio, R-Moon, said at the meeting he supports the Consol Energy deal.
"I just want to urge you to be proactive in reaching out to your local officials on a regular basis," Mustio told executives of the firm.