WELLSBURG - Wellsburg Middle School has lost a chance at a grant for band instruments because of the city's ban on natural gas drilling.
Officials with Brooke County Schools and Chesapeake Energy, the natural gas company that partly supports the grant; and the state Division of Culture and History, which administers it, confirmed Follansbee Middle School will receive the grant instead.
Karen Gresham, deputy commissioner of the state Division of Culture and History, said the $30,000 grant comes through the VH1 Save the Music Foundation and Chesapeake Energy, with each contributing evenly.
Gresham said for several years the foundation has provided funds for public schools to provide musical instruments to pupils in primary and middle schools to encourage their involvement in the arts.
She said more recently, through the efforts of Randall Reid-Smith, state Commissioner of Culture and History, a pilot program has been established that pairs funds from the foundation with a business or other partner.
Chesapeake Energy is one of a number of partners that have agreed to match the VH1 grants, Gresham said, and such partners may suggest areas where the funding may be awarded.
She said Chesapeake was interested in funding schools in Brooke County, where it has initiated drilling operations, and with the help of Brooke County Superintendent of Schools Kathy Kidder, Wellsburg Middle School was targeted for the funds.
But before the money was awarded, Wellsburg City Council adopted an ordinance banning natural gas drilling in and within a mile of the city, citing concerns the drilling could contaminate the city's drinking water, which is derived from wells.
Chesapeake and other natural gas companies use a process known as hydraulic fracturing to release the gas from the underground Marcellus shale formation. It involves blasting the shale with a fluid that includes 95 percent water and sand and 5 percent various chemicals, some of them toxic. Gas industry officials say the drilling occurs thousands of feet below water tables and the gas wells are heavily sealed with concrete and steel to prevent the fluid from leaking into the ground.
Opponents point to incidents in which wastewater from the process was spilled outside the wells or methane from abandoned coal mines was released, resulting in fires.
The ordinance calls for those who drill in the city or within one-mile from it to be fined up to $500, and allows the city may seek an injunction against the drilling.
City officials have indicated the ordinance may be revisited to address only wellheads, their primary concern, and since Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin has ordered additional regulations for the state Department of Environmental Protection to apply to natural gas drilling.
But the ordinance hasn't been rescinded at this time.
Stacey Brodak, director of corporate development for Chesapeake, said, "Chesapeake is very proud of our record of philanthropic giving and our efforts to enhance the quality of life in the communities in which we live and work. While we strive to find worthwhile community-support projects that benefit those in the areas where we are approved to operate, it is important that we dedicate our company's resources where can not only advance the interests of our shareholders but other stakeholders as well."
"Given the volume of requests we get across the country, it is imperative that we focus our philanthropy where we and our operations are supported by the community and its leaders," Brodak said.
"Unfortunately, with the imposition of a ban on our activity for a mile outside the city of Wellsburg, we are not now able to consider the current request for philanthropic gifts in this area. We are hopeful we can work together to eliminate the impediments and opposition to resource development in the area and can once again develop a mutually beneficial partnership with this community," she said.
Kidder confirmed because Wellsburg Middle School couldn't receive the grant, it was made available to Follansbee Middle School.
Kidder said while the move puts Follansbee Middle School in the awkward position of accepting money that initially was intended for another school, she understands Chesapeake's position.
But the move has been criticized by some community members who said it seems to punish local children for the actions of the city's leaders.
Some also have noted Wellsburg Middle School is attended not only by children living in Wellsburg, but also children from Beech Bottom and Bethany, where Chesapeake has begun drilling operations.
Officials with the VH1 Save the Music Foundation have said a review of prospective schools' music programs is done to determine their eligibility.
But Gresham said the process doesn't involve a formal grant application, so neither school had been required to submit a grant proposal.
She said other businesses or organizations may serve as a partner with VH1, so it may be possible for Wellsburg Middle School to receive a grant in the future.
Gresham didn't know if any more Save the Music funds are available for this year.
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