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Ah, wilderness -- with wells? Amherst firm's desire to drill is met by environmental skepticism

In an energy-hungry society, what lies beneath Allegany State Park's pristine and sprawling forests could in time help fuel the local economy.

That's one scenario.

But there's also the prospect of permanent roads marring the forest, hundreds of drill pads each the size of an acre, heavy machinery belching diesel fumes, loss of old-growth trees, and streams and water tables compromised by chemicals and silt.

That's another scenario.

An Amherst company says that it owns subsurface mineral rights below about 2,800 acres in the Red House section of the park and has asked the state for permission to sink five test wells.

Joseph M. Jayson, owner of U.S. Energy Development Corp., says he has no intention of upsetting the natural state of the park and insists that his plan offers the opportunity to provide the country with domestic energy and put local people to work.

"We're interested in developing our natural resources, and we want to do it in a very sound and environmental way that will not inhibit the purposes of the state park system and recreational endeavors of the people in New York State," Jayson said.

Environmentalists are skeptical of anyone coming into the nearly 65,000-acre park to drill for gas and oil.

They point just south of the park to Pennsylvania and the Allegheny National Forest, where drilling by several companies has left the stately forest riddled with roads, discarded drilling machinery, pollution and erosion.

Jayson's company, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, has played a role in the national forest's deterioration.

In July, Pennsylvania ordered U.S. Energy Development to stop drilling because of "persistent and repeated" violations of environmental laws.

"U.S. Energy has demonstrated a pattern of behavior that displays disregard for the environmental laws and regulations, the consequences being the contamination of water and soil in Warren and McKean counties," DEP Regional Director Kelly Burch said.

Last month, U.S. Energy Development paid a $200,000 civil penalty and agreed to correct the balance of damage cited in numerous violations, Burch said.

Many of the violations, Jayson said, were the result of long and persistent rains washing away previous remediation work that his company had performed. He also says that he could have successfully challenged the violations but decided that the better course was to quickly work out an agreement and put idled workers back on the job.

"We think that we would have won in Pennsylvania if we'd gone to court, but there were two or three hundred people out of work for six weeks and we settled," Jayson said. "We've operated in Pennsylvania and New York for 30 years with no violations and believe that these recent violations were the result of one land owner complaining to the DEP."

He added that surface owners who do not receive a portion of the money from mineral rights often make life difficult for drillers.

At this point, Jayson says, it is unknown how many people would be employed drilling for gas and oil inside Allegany State Park or the estimated value of the fuels.

"It depends on how many wells are drilled," Jayson said, explaining that a well can produce product "anywhere from five to 15 to 20 years."

Making use of the country's own energy resources, rather than buying them from other nations, he added, is in the best interest of the United States.

Environmentalists say that they take little comfort in Jayson's plans and that the park's 1.5 million visitors annually deserve a refuge uncluttered by industrial activities.

>Seeking state review

"The fear is that the wonderful Allegany forest that is 150 to 350 years old may be turned into a spaghetti mess of industrial roads and oil wells and virtually destroy the park," said Dr. Laurence T. Beahan, an official with the Sierra Club's Niagara Group.

Short-term benefits should not trump the park's long-term benefits, says Jay G. Wopperer, a local member of the Adirondack Mountain Club, which opposes the drilling.

"There's high stakes on this for future generations to enjoy the park," Wopperer said. "This park is our Adirondacks in Western New York."

Wopperer, a Clarence resident, says he has contributed input to state park officials over the years regarding the future of Allegany State Park, the state's biggest park, and has often been dismayed.

"I've been involved with the Allegany State Park master plan since 1983, and there have been two past plans and a pending third one, and every one of them has been very negative in terms of logging -- and now this," he said, speaking of this latest effort to tap into the park's natural resources. U.S. Energy Development's request to drill should be thoroughly reviewed by state officials to verify its ownership claims to mineral rights and a comprehensive environmental-impact study should follow if the claims are legal, said Beahan, an Amherst resident.

State parks officials in Albany are reviewing the claims, but ultimately the state's Department of Environmental Conservation will decide whether drilling permits are issued.

However, Beahan says there is another way to head off the possibility of drilling. The state, he suggests, should consider purchasing the mineral rights from the company.

"It's absolutely frightening to have this company that played so fast and loose with the environment in the Allegheny National Forest come to Allegany State Park," he said.

Yet in order to shield the park from drilling, the state would have to consider others who own rights to minerals.

"There is some belief the private sector, not just U.S. Energy, could own between 40 and 50 percent of the land beneath the park," said Neil F. Woodworth, executive director and attorney for the Adirondack Mountain Club.

He, too, raised concerns over the potential for a repeat performance of what has occurred in the Allegheny National Forest, where oil and gas interests have fought to maintain access.

"If what has happened in the Allegheny National Forest because of widespread road construction, multiple drill pads, pipelines -- if that is the future for Allegany State Park, the incredible unspoiled character of the park will be spoiled forever," he said.

Woodworth suggested that those interested in comparing the national forest with the park should go online to Google Earth and view aerial images.

"North of the Pennsylvania border, you see these beautiful unbroken forests, and if you look south of the border into Pennsylvania, you can see these road networks, the forest fragmentations and the extensive infrastructure that were necessary to exploit the oil and gas" Woodworth said.

"Frankly, from our perspective, it has turned a natural forest into an industrial zone."

Not so fast, says Douglas K. Walch, president of U.S. Energy Development. "There are already approximately 400 wells drilled in the park, and the state owns about 100 of them," he said. "My point is, they can't deny us access to our minerals when others have had a chance to develop their own."

Jayson reiterated that the company has no intention of harming the park. "There's nobody who wants to destroy a natural habitat," he said. "There is a way that you can merge both a business and the environment so that the environment isn't destroyed."

In making his case for drilling, Jayson cited the state's economic decline and the importance of pursuing business opportunities to stop other industries from leaving.

Of the idea of selling his mineral rights to the state, Jayson said, "I hadn't thought about it, but I'd consider it."

Assemblyman Sam Hoyt, D-Buffalo, who is opposed to drilling in the park, says those talks should begin right away.

"We should respond affirmatively, though this couldn't come at a worse time with the state struggling financially, but there is the Environmental Protection Fund, which could be tapped into," Hoyt said.

He has also asked State Attorney General Andrew M. Cuomo to determine whether environmental laws can be used to block drilling in the park. Hoyt believes that drilling could destroy park ecosystems.

>Getting firsthand look

During a tour he took of the Allegheny National Forest, Hoyt said he was disturbed by the pollution he observed from a drilling method known as hydrofracturing.

It requires large amounts of water and chemicals to be pumped deep into the earth to crack rock seams for the release of natural gas and oil to make wells more productive.

"I saw a couple hydrofracking wells, and they had retaining pools around them for the wastewater, and just below, there was a whole half-acre of dead trees and a swamp," Hoyt said.

State parks officials, meanwhile, say they sent U.S. Energy Development a letter about two weeks ago stating that the ownership documents it presented to them on mineral rights were inconclusive and that additional paperwork will have to be provided. The state, Beahan added, needs to take into consideration the current positive economic impact the park has on the region.

"Millions of dollars are brought into Cattaraugus County each year by the millions of park visitors," he said, "and that could be lost if the oil companies are allowed to destroy the forests."

e-mail: lmichel@buffnews.com

***

DRILLING DEBATE

An Amherst company has proposed drilling five oil and gas test wells in the Red House section of Allegany State Park.

FOR

"There's nobody who wants to destroy a natural habitat. There is a way that you can merge both a business and the environment so that the environment isn't destroyed."

- Joseph M. Jayson, the owner of U.S. Energy Development Corp.

*

AGAINST

"It's absolutely frightening to have this company that played so fast and loose with the environment in the Allegheny National Forest come to Allegany State Park."

- Dr. Laurence T. Beahan of the Sierra Club?s Niagara Group

*Allegheny National Forest, just across the New York border in Pennsylvania, is home to hundreds of oil and gas wells.

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