Gas under graveyards raises moral, money questions

4:57 PM, Jun 30, 2012   |    comments
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COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) - Cemeteries are joining parks, playgrounds, churches and backyards as targets of the U.S. shale drilling boom, and that's an uncomfortable idea for some.

Opponents say cemeteries shouldn't be disturbed by drilling they worry will be noisy, smelly and unsightly. Defenders say the drilling is too deep to cause such problems and can generate revenue to enhance the grounds.

In rural Ohio, trustees in Poland Township received a proposal this year to lease cemetery mineral rights for $140,000, plus 16 percent of any royalties, for any oil and gas. Similar offers followed at two other area cemeteries.

"Most people don't like it," said 70-year-old Marilee Pilkington, who lives down the road from the 122-year-old Lowellville Cemetery and whose father and brother are buried there.

"I think it's a dumb idea because I wouldn't want anyone up there disturbing the dead, number one, and, number two, I don't like the aspect of drilling," she said.

John Campbell, a lease agent for Campbell Development LLC, a Texas-based company, declined a request for more information on his proposal, which was not expected to stir any graves. He said only that the offer was not accepted.

The news is just more fuel for the dispute in the Youngstown area, already rocked by a series of earthquakes that have been tied to deep-well injection of wastewater from hydraulic fracturing and other drilling activities. They're fighting for a citywide drilling ban.

Concerns are driven largely by a lack of information, said John Stephenson, president of the Texas Cemeteries Association.

"A lot of it just has to do with the way that it's presented," he said. "You're hundreds of feet (maters) below the ground, and it's not disturbing any graves."

It's possible to reach oil and gas deposits now from drilling rigs placed sometimes miles away because of advances in what's called horizontal drilling. The technology has made vast new shale energy deposits available under the Northeast, Texas and elsewhere.

Stephenson leased mineral rights under two of his cemeteries in the past three years, he said. Each is about a century old and populated with 75,000 graves. Revenue from the leases - he wouldn't say how much - has allowed him to pave roads, repair fences and make other improvements during economic hard times.

The Catholic Cemeteries Association in Pittsburgh also saw benefits to leasing mineral rights under 11 of its cemeteries. The five-year lease, signed in 2008, came to light through news reports in 2010.

David Shields, a city councilman at the time, was able to push through a citywide drilling ban amid the outrage.

"Everybody (in the press) liked the ghoulish aspects of drilling on sacred ground and disturbing great-Grandma's body and all that," Shields said.

Plot owners have no legal claim to the mineral rights at a cemetery, Stephenson said.

The inability to control mineral rights has become a concern in Colorado, where the National Cemetery Association, which operates veterans' cemeteries, is working to select a site for a new cemetery.

"Certainly you don't want oil drilling operations occurring on a property where it could be disruptive to the services or to the visitors, to the serenity or the peace of the site," said Glenn Madderom, the agency's chief of cemetery development and improvement service.

The administration also successfully fought to move drilling operations to the other side of a forest abutting the veterans' cemetery in Natchez, Mississippi, to preserve the mood, he said.

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