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Landowners and environmentalists agree: Broome County should not sign gas deal


BINGHAMTON -- In the highly polarizing debate about the natural gas rush in the Southern Tier, environmentalists and landowners don't agree on much.

On Monday, they were nearly unanimous in their opposition to a proposed lease deal between Broome County and a Denver energy company. Of 22 people who spoke at a public hearing on a $16 million land deal before the county legislature, 18 were against it.

Inflection Energy, a small company based in Denver, has offered the county $3,000 an acre over five years for the drilling rights to 5,610 acres of county-owned land. The county also would receive 20 percent royalty payments with minor deductions, and the company would pay for an "environmental monitor" who would report to the county and make sure proper regulations are being followed.

The deal includes an option, which could be exercised by the company, for an additional three years at another $3,000 an acre.

Their reasoning was different, but most of the speakers at the hearing agreed that the county was getting a bad deal.

"All of the people that are anti-drilling are here because they are against drilling. Then you have the people from the (landowners') coalitions that have studied this, and it's not a good deal," said Charlie Manasse, a member of the County Line Landowners Coalition and former Town of Barker supervisor. "The vast majority of people here, we're on the same side of the issue. Whether you're in favor of drilling or not, you're against this contract with Inflection."

Manasse and other landowners said they think the county's acreage is worth more money.

Others expressed concern about extracting gas from underneath county parks and near homes. The deal would not allow Inflection to place any drill pads on the surface of parkland or parts of the Greater Binghamton Airport and the county landfill, but it would be permitted to extract gas underneath the land through horizontal drilling at adjacent rigs.

"Contamination does not happen just at the well pad. If this deal goes through and those properties are leased, there will eventually be drill pads all around the parks," said Kris Pixton, co-chair of New York Residents Against Drilling. "The drilling will go under the parkland, and the chances of contaminating their many lakes and waterways will be sizeable."

County Executive Barbara Fiala warned after the meeting that the county desperately needs the signing bonus, which would be paid within 90 days of signing a contract. She warned that without added revenue, county residents could face large tax increases or layoffs.

"Certainly the environment and economic development is priority," Fiala said. "But we can't ignore the fact of what it would mean for our budget. It's going to be a tough budget process, and I want to hear these people say, 'Really, don't worry about the money, we're happy with a double-digit tax increase.'"

Nearly 200 people were in attendance, packing the legislative chamber and two overflow rooms at the County Office Building. Thirty-six people who signed up to speak did not get the chance before the meeting ended at 7:25 p.m.

Alex Parillo, an organizer and field representative for Laborers Local 785, was one of the few to speak in favor of the land deal. He said he had met with Inflection executives and came away convinced the deal would bring jobs to the Southern Tier. Several union members attended the hearing, wearing shirts that read: "Gas drilling in New York means jobs for New Yorkers."

"These people are proactive," Parillo said. "They're looking ahead, and that's what laborers want to be a part of, and that's what we want the county to be a part of, quite frankly."

Several people, however, spoke against Inflection. Leo Cotnoir, a Johnson City resident, said the company's executives have a history of questionable business practices and urged the county to research it more, while Vestal Gas Coalition member Bob Poloncic said his group received two offers from Inflection and found the company to be "woefully inadequate."

"There are very real questions about Inflection Energy, their ethics, and their capabilities," Cotnoir said. "The gas under Broome County has been there for millions of years, and it will not go anywhere while the county government exercises due diligence."

Inflection was not represented at the meeting, but in an interview last week, company CEO Mark Sexton said his executives have an average of 30 years in the natural gas industry and the company is poised to grow.

Four members of the legislature -- Marchie Diffendorf of Kirkwood, Steven Herz of Windsor, Suzanne Messina of Vestal, and Ronald Keibel of Whitney Point -- have been barred from voting or discussing the deal because they have either signed a lease with a natural gas company or are part of a landowners' coalition. That irked several attendees, who worried they might not be getting the representation they are entitled to.

"They are not permitted to discuss this issue. They are not permitted to vote on this issue, and, hello, the drilling will be done in the rural areas that these (legislators) represent," said Lois Dilworth, the current Barker town supervisor. "You are depriving my constituents, you are depriving this entire legislative board of the expertise of these (people)."

The legislature will vote on the deal at 5 p.m. Thursday at the county office building. Inflection has set a July 30 deadline for the county to accept. Ten of the 15 remaining legislators must vote in favor of the deal to pass.