WHEELING - The Ohio County Board of Education is objecting to Chesapeake Energy's proposed natural gas drilling site near Wheeling Park High School, citing concerns about evacuation routes and increased truck traffic in a letter sent Wednesday to the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection.
Board members met Wednesday to discuss the well site, which is less than 1,000 feet from the high school's track and about a half-mile from the J.B. Chambers Performing Arts Center.
"Should an explosion, spill, trucking accident, fire or other emergency at the proposed well site occur, the close proximity creates a clear and present danger for the safety of approximately 2,000 individuals who either attend the school or work there daily," states the letter, which was signed by all board members and Superintendent George Krelis.
The land on which the well would be drilled is owned by the Parks System Trust Fund of Wheeling and the lease is signed by members of the Wheeling Park Commission. Park Commission President and Chief Executive Officer J. Douglas Dalby said Chesapeake is following the proper procedures in preparing to drill the wells on the trust fund's property.
"We believe in safety first. If there are safety issues that need to be addressed, Chesapeake needs to address them," Dalby said. "I believe the issue of truck traffic is a legitimate concern that the school has raised."
Krelis during Wednesday's meeting noted the board of education previously decided against leasing any of the school system's property to drilling companies.
If an emergency situation developed at the well site, the letter continues, both Park View and Sonneborne roads would conceivably be unavailable to route school buses to the high school to evacuate the building. That would leave only the extremely narrow Springdale Hill and Park View Lane as evacuation routes, the letter states.
Board member Sam Andy asked his colleagues to picture 1,700 students walking down Park View Lane in the event buses are not able to reach the high school during an evacuation procedure.
The letter continues " ... daily traffic to and from the school ... coupled with increased truck traffic associated with well construction and operation, would create an unmanageable traffic situation."
Ohio County Schools Deputy Superintendent Dianna Vargo said Chesapeake wants to meet with school system officials and other stakeholders to discuss the proposed well site. Krelis said the school system will express their opposition during that meeting, which has not yet been scheduled.
"We're not trying to be a bad neighbor to Chesapeake," said board President Erik Schramm, "but goodness gracious guys, pick a spot that isn't right on top of our softball field or baseball field."
Chesapeake spokeswoman Stacey Brodak said the company has drilled many wells safely in urban settings, including some near Bethany College and West Liberty University and is willing to address the concerns of Ohio County Schools officials.
"Chesapeake has been communicating with key stakeholders on this site for a while," she said. "We have invited the superintendent's office to a meeting to discuss details, but they asked to wait. We hoped to have all parties at the table and address concerns. We regret that the school board did not provide us that opportunity before their meeting today, as we believe we could allay their concerns. We are moving forward with our stakeholders group and still intend to address all concerns the school may have."