By DAN GUZEWICH Staff writer

A handful of Oneida County legislators saw firsthand the controversial natural gas drilling process called hydrofracking when they traveled to Pennsylvania last week.

Nearly 10 lawmakers and one legislator-elect, and the county executive, carpooled to Bradford County Thursday where they met with representatives of a natural gas drilling company, a county commissioner and the head of the Bradford County Conservation District.

"Certainly I learned a lot," said Legislator Patrick H. Brennan, R-3, Marshall. "It was very informative."

With several hundred wells, Bradford County is considered to be at the forefront of development in the Marcellus Shale formation for the extraction of natural gas. The area has attracted national and international investment. Bradford County has about 62,600 residents.

The Marcellus shale is a rich natural gas field that lies beneath Pennsylvania, southern New York, and parts of Ohio and West Virginia. If there ever is hydrofracking in Oneida County, it would most likely occur in the southern portion, like in Brennan’s district.

Local opponents of the drilling process and related impact have been speaking during the public comment section of Board of Legislature meetings for the last several months. A number of towns in Oneida County have enacted or are considering a moratorium on natural gas drilling activities. Last week’s trip enabled lawmakers to see up close some of what the controversy is about.

"We had our eyes wide open," said Legislator George E. Joseph, R-10, Westmoreland.

Legislator Brian P. Mandryck, R-17, Lee, said "one of the biggest negatives" he learned about was the large jump in monthly charges for rental properties as a result of increased demand because of the influx of workers connected to the drilling boom.

Several of the lawmakers said truck traffic was readily evident. Heavy truck traffic to support the drilling process results in oft-heard complaints about safety issues, wear-and-tear on roads and dust.

Some roads that once had dirt or gravel surfaces are now paved to accommodate truck traffic.

Several of the legislators said they saw numerous help-wanted signs and many of them specifically announced openings for commercial truck drivers.

County Executive Anthony J. Picente Jr. said it was his understanding that Bradford County’s unemployment had diminished significantly because of the arrival of natural gas drilling.

"You didn’t see any anti-hydrofracking signs, at least we didn’t," he said.

Such messages, however, can be seen in yards in Oneida County.

Stops during the day included a drilling pad operated by Chesapeake Energy. Pads can cover as many as five acres.

"It was pretty interesting to stand there and watch them do their job," said Brennan. He noted drilling can be a noisy operation and is non-stop, adding that crews work 24 hours a day, seven days a week until a well is finished.

"We put feet to the ground," noted Joseph. "We walked right up to a drill head."

He said Chesapeake Energy people told the group that improvements to the hydrofracking process are occurring as the industry learns more and safeguards are now in place that weren’t several years ago.

Hydrofracking, uses high volumes of water, sand and chemicals to release the natural gas from dense rock. Opponents argue that the method cannot be used without a high risk of water contamination and other environmental hazards.

Brennan said County Commissioner John Sullivan and Conservation District Manager Michael Lovegreen, plus Chesapeake Energy officials, all said they were not aware of any direct water contamination from the process.

When Sullivan and Lovegreen were asked about the effect of hydrofracking, they replied it was more a landscape impact than an environmental one, according to two of the legislators.

Brennan, Joseph, Mandryck and Picente all agreed the trip was a useful tool to learn more about the practice, but none is ready to embrace the hydrofracking without reservations.

"I can honestly say I don’t know," said Joseph in commenting whether he would allow natural gas drilling on his land.