The temperature hovered in the teens Jan. 17, but that didn’t stop a group of spirited residents from picketing outside Word of Faith International Christian Center, a church in talks with an oil and gas company to drill an exploratory well.
According to a statement in a previous report from Jordan Development Co., a privately owned oil and gas exploration and development company, the company has entered into an agreement with the church, 20000 W. Nine Mile Road, to explore for oil and gas on part of the church’s 110-acre property.
Jordan Development Co. Vice President Ben Brower said in a previous report that his company believes there is some oil and gas on the property, and the only way to find out is to drill a well.
The release says that the proposed well would be located in the dense woods behind the church, away from residents and other property owners.
The well would be 3,000 feet deep, and the entire process would take about two weeks, Brower said. The well would not be hydraulically fractured, the statement and Brower said previously.
However, City Planner Terry Croad said in November that the city of Southfield had extended a 180-day moratorium on oil and gas extraction and mining operations at its Oct. 19 meeting. The extension was approved unanimously.
Since then, the city has released several statements opposing the drilling proposal, and officials said in a release that they requested additional information and analysis Jan. 19 from the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality in an effort to deny the drilling.
In a press release, Community Relations Director Michael Manion said the city is asking for information on how the well would impact nearby residential water wells, endangered species, the environment and air quality, and how the applicant would prevent waste.
“Recent issues involving the MDEQ have raised serious concerns about the department’s review process,” City Administrator Fred Zorn said in a written statement. “The safety of our residents should be of paramount concern to the MDEQ. That is why the city is requesting that the MDEQ fully and completely address all of the issues that the city has presented to them.”
Croad said previously that the church is located in a residential district, which raises concerns for the city, as drilling is not permitted in a residential zoning district, on top of the moratorium stating that drilling and mining are not allowed in the city. In addition to being located in a residential district, Croad said, the property comprises woodlands and wetlands.
A group of about 30 residents, who identify themselves as Stop the Drilling in Southfield, gathered outside multiple entrances to the church, displaying their distaste for the church’s decision.
Resident Larry Bolenbaugh said the group formed on Facebook and met at the Southfield Public Library to discuss how to take action.
“We sat out in the hall and had a meeting, and that’s when we dreamed up having this protest,” Bolenbaugh said. “We want them to understand the impact of what they’re doing. We’re not sure if they fully understand. They might be blindly following what the minister says.”
Resident Yvette Stroman said she went to the protest because she is concerned about how the drilling would affect the environment, the groundwater and the community.
“I’m concerned about additional traffic and noise, and I’m concerned about the property value around here,” Stroman said. “I chose to live here because I value the high quality of living here, and I want to keep it that way.”
Mayor Ken Siver, and former City Councilman and current state Rep. Jeremy Moss also participated in the protest.
“We find that drilling in the center of a residential area — this is all zoned residential — is incompatible with community life,” Siver said. “We also have a number of people in Southfield who do not get their water from the Detroit water system; they’re on wells, and we’re concerned about groundwater contamination. This is the Rouge River watershed here, and even if it’s as safe as Jordan Development says it is, there will be heavy equipment, there will be trucks on our streets, and there will be a loss of a number of trees that are being removed here.”
Brower said in a previous statement that Jordan Development Co. has an “excellent reputation” with the MDEQ.
“My biggest concern here is the city has a moratorium on this practice, and the DEQ is not abiding by that lawful moratorium,” Moss said.
“So for me, it’s certainly an issue of health and implications of that nature, but it’s also an issue of process and when can our local government here govern and speak for our residents?”
Brower said previously that the church would receive money for the extraction. How much depends on the amount of resources on its land, he said.
The protesters stayed outside the church 9-11 a.m. — an opportune time to picket, as the Sunday worship service starts at 10 a.m.
At times, protesters were met with honks of support from passersby, but one parishioner made sure the protesters knew her opinion by yelling, “You’re going to jail!”
Stop the Drilling in Southfield spokesperson Skip Davis said police arrived to make sure protesters were being orderly.
“We’re a larger group, and (the officer) wanted to make sure we stayed on the sidewalk. He thought we were orderly,” Davis said.
A handful of protesters said they believe the site would be fracked, although Jordan Development has denied any plans of fracking at the church.
Word of Faith Minister Andrea Simpson said the group has a right to protest, but she believes the group is uninformed and said they were hostile when she tried to explain the church’s viewpoint on the matter.
“We can disagree, but should do so with the understanding that the other party has the right to a dissenting opinion. I believe then we can have a meaningful dialogue that has the potential to yield a positive outcome. But we get nowhere when we are rude, mean and threatening as I experienced this past Sunday,” Simpson said in an email Jan. 20.
Present at the protest was former church member and Southfield resident Kellie Thomas, who said she left the church because of the drilling decision.
“I’ve been (with the church) for 25 years. My daughter was baptized there, my grandson was baby benediction there, so it’s just been our family’s nucleus, so it’s hurtful,” Thomas said through tears.
Simpson said church members plan to hand out hot chocolate and coffee to protesters in the coming weeks.
“We’re not going away. Every week. Put it on your calendar. Every Sunday,” Davis said.
A representative from the MDEQ did not return a request for comment by press time.
Brower did not return a request for comment by press time.
Hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” is a process using water, sand and an assortment of chemicals to break up rock miles below the earth’s surface and harvest natural gas. The practice is a controversial one. Opponents of fracking believe that it is more harmful to the environment than traditional extraction, while others believe that it keeps energy costs down because it allows for a larger gas harvest.