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Drilling Boom Strains Rural Community Infrastructure

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The arrival of the oil and gas industry in rural, eastern Ohio has brought millions of dollars in leasing money for landowners, a flurry of business activity, and a tax boost for counties. But carving out room - and roads - to accommodate energy giants like Chesapeake is not without its challenges. ideastream’s Michelle Kanu reports the opportunity for economic development is welcome, but the drilling boom can strain rural communities.

Thursday, May 30, 2013 at 9:20 pm

Flush the toilet in Cleveland or any other major city, and the waste flows out to the city sewer system.

But in 95 percent of Carroll County, there's no sewer. Private septic systems are the norm in rural areas like this where the bulk of energy companies are drilling natural gas wells. And the lack of bigger, public systems for services like water and sewer can be a turn off for businesses moving to the area.

Just ask Tom Wheaton, one of Carroll County’s commissioners.

He says last year plans were moving ahead to build a 300 acre commerce park to for drilling companies and their sub-contractors. But when many of those companies learned they would have to pay to install their own water and sewer lines, some pulled out. Now the project has stalled.

Wheaton: “It’s been a roadblock for many of the businesses that come and visit or call that want to come here and they can’t because we don’t have the correct infrastructure for them.”

The absence of a countywide sewer system isn’t the only challenge. Outside of the villages, most Carroll County residents rely on private water wells. Internet and broadband service is limited. And cell phone reception is spotty at best.

To alleviate these problems, Wheaton says county officials have started planning for a network of water and sewer lines that would connect to the commerce park. But Wheaton says it’s hard to know exactly how much to build, and how many businesses to plan for.

Wheaton: “We’re almost at the mercy of the oil and gas companies. They’re putting processing plants in locations that we never thought we’d ever have anything but farmland.”

Being at the mercy of the drilling industry is something rural communities in eastern Ohio are all getting familiar with.

Forty-five minutes outside of Carroll County, Larry Kosiba points out workers digging trenches for pipelines as he drives me out to a natural gas processing facility under construction.

Kosiba: “You can see the tall cranes and the facility being built over here on the midstream area. And as you can see, it’s in the middle of rural Columbiana County. There’s nothing but trees and farm land, and small rural two lane roads out here.”

As the economic development director for Columbiana County, Kosiba regularly clocks long hours fielding calls from energy-connected companies looking to locate to the area. He says the industry moves at such a fast pace, he sometimes feels overwhelmed.

And like his neighbors in Carroll County, he’s concerned about possibly overdeveloping the area.

Kosiba: “My role is not only just to attract new companies here, and to attract hotels and retail, but also we have to look at it from a sustainable nature. I don’t need to build, or have five to six hotels built, last two to three years and then have empty facilities. So it’s a delicate balance of encouraging everybody to come.”

Some experts advise: it’s better to invest on the conservative side. Mark Partridge is a professor of rural urban policy at Ohio State University.

Partridge: “Communities having an energy boom tend to over invest. They think this thing’s going to go on forever, and then when the boom ends they’re stuck with all these additional costs.”

Back in Carroll County, Commissioner Tom Wheaton says he’s working with the other elected officials to come up with a new comprehensive plan for the future, but he admits it’s hard to change the pervading small town mindset.

Wheaton: "We have to plan bigger, we have to look at our county and ourselves differently."

And if they want to make the most of the boom, they have to do it quickly. The state predicts there will be more than 1000 permits issued for new gas wells by 2015.

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