WELLSBORO - In a surprise announcement during the Tioga County Development Corp.'s Legislative Breakfast here Thursday, Sen. Joe Scarnati, R-Brockway, told a crowd of more than 200 attendees news at least some of them were pleased to hear.
Next week, after the Easter holiday, he said, he plans to introduce a plan to the governor to implement a "local impact fee" on natural gas drillers harvesting natural gas in the lucrative Marcellus Shale gas play that covers an area under a good two-thirds of the state, but largely in the Central and Northern Tier of counties.
Though he wouldn't say how much he was hoping to see collected, he did tell the crowd that he wanted to make sure the funds "go to the areas experiencing the greatest impact" of drilling, including money to address environmental, emergency services, infrastructure and housing concerns.
In light of a natural gas drill site flowback water spill in Bradford County Wednesday, Scarnati said he is hoping the impact fee will help address the water and environmental impact of such accidents.
"DEP is onsite doing an analysis now, and they are on top of it," he said.
He repeated his confidence in the agency and its new secretary, Mike Krancer, as well as former secretary John Hanger.
About reports of well water contamination coming out of Bradford County, Scarnati said if people are being impacted the companies "should do something" to assist, but he also said "increased safety measures and standards will prevent these things from happening in the future."
He especially emphasized the funds from the impact fee should not end up going to urban areas and that he "hopes by June we can start solving some of these local problems."
Among the impacts of the industry is the lack of affordable housing, which state Rep. Matt Baker, R-Wellsboro referred to as an "unintended consequence on low and moderate income people."
"Rental housing is reportedly double and triple the cost it was two to three years ago," he said.
U.S. Rep. Glenn Thompson, R-Howard, said he preferred to look at the affordable housing issue created by the industry as "an opportunity" rather than a crisis, as it has been called.
"It increases property values, that's a good thing; it broadens the tax base, and encourages people to invest in their properties," he said. "It comes at a time when the building trade is at 25-percent unemployment."
He admitted that "more affordable housing is needed," and that housing costs should be "no more than 30 percent of a family's income," but that a solution should be found with both "public and private sector" involvement.
"The federal government can assist in financing, but it is an incredible opportunity to create jobs, meet a need and be financially reimbursed for it," he said.
Baker agreed with Thompson, noting a new public housing project in progress in Liberty will help address some of the problems, and in Bradford County one of the gas drilling companies is constructing its own apartment building to house 250 of its employees that he hopes will "take some of the pressure off" locals unable to find housing.
The development corp.'s board chairman, David C. Cummings Jr., added that he is hopeful an ongoing student housing project on the Mansfield University campus also will alleviate some of the lack of housing in Tioga County by provided better quality housing for students.