$500M Drilling Deal for Pittsburgh Airport Riles Nearby Residents

February 26, 2013 – In The News
Pittsburgh Tribune

Allegheny County agreed on a $500M deal with Consol Energy Inc. for shale gas drilling on airport property. The deal affects at least 300 people currently employed in the area, all of whom will receive very little compensation in comparison with the millions the Allegheny County Airport Authority will net. The county used eminent domain condemnations in court to acquire 9,000 acres the authority is leasing to Cecil-based Consol.

The most recent acquisitions were in 2004 and 2005, when the county offered 50 members of the McLaughlin’s, a family of one of the affected workers, and 32 other families $1 to split for each parcel of their mineral rights.

Some residents have protested airport land acquisition since government leaders started using eminent domain to condemn land for an airport in the 1950s. A few landowners appealed in court over the decades with mixed results.

In an appeal to Commonwealth Court in 2003, a lawyer argued that the county hadn't proved it took the land for public good, as the law requires. It took land to lease it to other private parties, argued an attorney who represented Carol Nicoletti, a coal rights owner from Findlay.

Some people owned mineral estate that was separate from surface properties decades ago, and that’s how the county ended up with the land but not all of the mineral rights. Some people only had leases that would have expired long ago. Some attorneys believe that county officials only made nominal offers to estate owners as a precaution, because it is difficult to tell a lease from a sale in 19th-century documents.

The case would be tough to fight now because courts likely won't show sympathy for people who didn't challenge the county's offer, lawyers said. In eminent domain cases, citizens have about five years to challenge, according to David B. Snyder, a lawyer with Fox Rothschild LLP in Philadelphia.

“That's a pretty bright line,” said Snyder. “If you blow that five years and you haven't challenged the amount of money they're offering you, it's just like a statute of limitations. ... You're out of luck.”

Many residents said it didn't make sense for them to pay attorneys or experts for rights that might get them only $1 to split among dozens of heirs. The county approached some family members who were elderly or ailing, they said.

This article was also featured in the March 1, 2013 issue of The Progress.