Prior to Wednesday night’s Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) Drilling Permit Public Hearing regarding a proposed oil well at the Word of Faith Church at 9 Mile and Evergreen, Southfield Mayor Ken Siver declared: “We need a citizen army.”
That army showed up in force and the battle lines were drawn early and throughout the three-hour hearing before a packed auditorium at Southfield High School. In what sometimes turned loud, heated and emotional, many concerned citizens in the full 500-seat auditorium raised objections to the project but whether or not it will matter depends on the message, not the emotion.
The MDEQ is considering a permit application from Traverse City-based oil and gas exploration company Jordan Development to dig a 2,900-foot oil well on 110 acres owned by the 14,000-member Word of Faith International Christian Center.
Harold Fitch, chief of the MDEQ's Office of Oil, Gas and Minerals, said the original deadline for a decision on this permit was Jan. 7, 2016 but was postponed because of the “degree and intensity of interest in this particular application.”
“We passed our deadline because we felt it was important to let people voice their concerns and provide us with input,” he said. “We also wanted the opportunity to share some information.”
MDEQ received the application from Word of Faith on Oct. 30.
Fitch said he couldn’t give a date on when a final decision on the permit would be reached. He added that a public hearing on this type of permit request is not required by law but they felt it was important to have in order to hear from the citizens and to also share information on the permit and process.
“We are doing this voluntarily just because of the interest in it,” Fitch said. “It’s pretty rare that we would host a public hearing on an individual permit request.”
Fitch, who said there are hundreds of wells in residential areas throughout the state and some in more heavily populated than this request, said they must follow “a system of laws.”
He said that denying a permit that meets all the requirements would open up the MDEQ to possible litigation. He cited two instances, including a recent one in Farmington Hills, where the permits were denied and the oil companies successfully sued.
“That’s something we have to consider when weighing these factors,” he said. “Our duty is to protect the environment and the public health and safety while also honoring those property rights.”
Fitch welcomed all comments but again stressed that the MDEQ must adhere to certain rules and guidelines.
“You are welcome to express any thoughts or concerns you have on this particular application,” he said to the packed auditorium. “But to influence our decision we need to hear something that demonstrates whether or not this application meets the rules or it doesn’t.”
A majority of those who spoke during the public hearing were against the project, citing environmental concerns especially in a residential area.
Connie Jackson has called Southfield home for the past 20 years and she showed up early to voice her objection to the project.
“I am against any type of drilling, whether it’s hydraulic or fracking,” she said. “I would prefer no drilling because we have the tendency to believe that we are the center of the earth. We need to be good stewards and when you impact that land you live on you effect everything.”
Jackson said, “any time you do something unnatural to the earth something bad will happen.”
“I don’t even want to take a chance of an accident,” she said. “The best way to eliminate the chance for an accident is to not do any drilling at all.”
Stephen Bentley, who has lived in Southfield for 22 years, believes it’s wrong to place an oil well within a residential area.
“No one wants something like this near their home,” he said. “Who knows what the fallout will be with the fumes, increased traffic and the water table. In 10 or 15 years we could be having another Flint and it will be right here in Southfield. A residential area is no place for a well.”
Pansy Coleman, a member of Word of Faith, said most church members were in favor of the project because they did their homework and followed the guidelines required by the MDEQ.
“Bishop (Keith) Butler is a man of excellence and we all care about people and there is no way we would agree to do something that is harmful to this community and the residents of this community,” she said. “We all have kids and family in this area and there is no way we would be in favor of something that is a detriment to this community.”
Coleman said they support their church and the community.
“We give back to this community and we are always doing things to support the community,” she said. “We would never do anything to destroy this community or try to divide it. We have a big stake in this too.”
Jack Lanigan, area geologist for Southeast Michigan, began the public hearing with an overview from the MDEQ on the history and different types of drilling. Lanigan was specific in the type of drilling requested by this particular application and stressed that it would be a straight vertical drilling and would not be harmful to the local water wells in the area.
More than 61,000 drill permits have been issued in 90 years and there are more than 1,700 active wells in the state. More than 320 wells have been drilled in Oakland County. There have been two wells drilled in Southfield’s history; one in 1897 and the other in the 1940s. Neither well is active.
Siver addressed the crowd and reiterated his position on the project.
“Local control is very important to us and we want to have a say in this decision that we are having a family discussion here about,” he said. “Our entire city council and administration is opposed to this. We are not opposed to Word of Faith.
“Southfield has a long history of very strong environmental concerns. We have been good stewards.”
US Congresswoman Brenda Lawrence (14th District) said it was important for “residents of this community who pay their taxes to be heard and have certain assurances” regarding the project.
State Rep. Jeremy Moss, a former Southfield City Council member who lives near the proposed site, hosted two town hall meetings at the Southfield Public Library prior to the Public Hearing.
Moss first heard about what was happening at the Word of Faith Church when residents brought it to his attention in November during a coffee chat he hosts every month at the Southfield Library.
Last month Moss introduced House Bill 5258, which was referred to the Committee on Energy Policy and amends the Natural Resources and Environmental Protection Act which issues oil and gas drilling permits in Michigan. The bill would not allow a permit to be granted in a county with a population of 750,000 or more unless a number of conditions are met. Those conditions would include that the well be at least 2,000 feet from a residential building and that the location and operation of the proposed well be in compliance with applicable local ordinances.
Southfield has a moratorium in place on drilling that Moss said: “the state is not respecting.”
According to Southfield City Attorney Sue Ward, the moratorium was put in place by the City Council about a year ago and prevents such a project without approval by the Council.
“We have communicated this to the MDEQ that this moratorium is in effect and that this is residentially-zoned property and it is not a permitted use in the City of Southfield,” she said. “We have been looking at allowing mining and drilling to be allowed in an industrial-zoned property and we have plenty of that in the city. We don’t feel this should be occurring in a residential area.”