Emotions ran high and seats ran low as over 800 people attended a public hearing Feb. 17 by the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality on a proposed oil well at Word of Faith International Christian Center.
The hearing was held at 6 p.m. in the auditorium of Southfield High School. Officials from the MDEQ office of Oil, Gas and Minerals invited residents to attend the information presentation and public comment meeting on the proposed well.
Hal Fitch, chief of the Office of Oil, Gas and Minerals; Jack Lanigan, senior geologist with the MDEQ; and Mark Snow, supervisor of permits, held the meeting. Tracy Kecskemeti, local MDEQ district coordinator, acted as the moderator for the event.
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 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 said that the proposed well will 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.
However, city officials have stated that the city holds a moratorium on oil and gas extraction and mining operations. City officials have also questioned the safety of the proposed well, as it’s located in a residential area containing woodlands and wetlands.
The well will not be hydraulically fractured, the statement said.
Attendees staked out long before the meeting began to make sure they had a seat. Members of a citizen group who identify themselves as Stop the Drilling in Southfield gathered outside the school before the event to protest the proposed well. The group has also been protesting outside the church on Sunday mornings.
Prior to taking comments from the public, MDEQ officials gave a half-hour presentation on how the well would be drilled and how it would be designed to avoid polluting the ground. Officials reiterated that the well will not be fracked.
“Like it or not, I’m one of your neighbors too. I’ve lived at the corner of 13 Mile and Evergreen for the last 25 years,” Lanigan said. “I’m not going to ask you to trust me. … What I’m asking you to do is listen to what I have to say — what all of us have to say, just as we’re going to listen to your questions and your comments and get as much information as we can today so we can make a good decision.”
Fitch said that although officials were taking public comment, their decision will weigh on whether or not the proposed well fits within the state’s guidelines.
“Tonight, you’re of course welcome to express whatever opinions or thoughts you might have to make a comment. To influence our permit decision, it would have to be something that demonstrates whether or not this fits the rules or doesn’t,” Fitch said. “That’s the only thing we can judge this application on.”
After the presentation, Southfield Mayor Ken Siver, U.S. Rep. Brenda Lawrence and state Rep. Jeremy Moss took the podium to address the crowd.
Siver expressed that although the city opposes the well, they are not against the members of Word of Faith.
“I consider this — as we did when we had other controversial issues — that we’re all family and this is a disagreement between one member of the family and another,” Siver said. “So, I would like to have — as we did with our major debate about Wal-Mart — I would like to have a civil discourse, because after all, this is Southfield.”
Lawrence expressed her concerns about the MDEQ’s involvement in the Flint water crisis.
“I’m in the heat of this debate and discussion about what happened to Flint, and I can appreciate that this is a different segment of the DEQ, but I have some major concerns. I have some major concerns,” Lawrence said. “I want the residents of this community who pay their taxes to have the assurance, and I haven’t heard that.”
Moss, who was instrumental in setting up the hearing with the MDEQ, said he believes the MDEQ’s rules are inconsistent and that the city should be allowed to uphold its moratorium.
“We are not a community under state management. We govern ourselves here in Southfield,” Moss said. “Instead of focusing on maximum oil production, I hope today we focus on maximum people protection.”
Residents were given three minutes to make their comments. Kecskemeti said that if the panelists were to hear every question at the meeting, it would take over six hours.
Many attendees broke out with passionate cries of approval or disapproval following several resident comments.
“We don’t want negativity,” Southfield resident and local activist Pamela Gerald said. “We don’t want an oil well.”
Pam and John Smith, 40-year residents who said they live about one mile from Word of Faith, said they came to the meeting to show their disapproval of the proposed well.
“This is right in our backyard. This could contaminate our water. This could contaminate our air,” Pam Smith said. “We just finished paving Evergreen. Those gigantic trucks coming down Evergreen could wreck that. This is a residential neighborhood.”
John Smith said he’s questioning his residency in Southfield.
“I would not have moved here if I knew there was an oil well, so you’re losing those involved citizens,” John Smith said. “You’re going to damage property values. Even if (the well is) perfect, you’ll damage property values because people are scared to buy here.”
Detroit resident and Word of Faith member Lisa LaBon said she came to the meeting to support her congregation and believes many residents are misinformed about the church’s intentions.
“I have no doubt what the bishop says will take place is definitely what’s going to happen,” LaBon said. “There’s lack of knowledge on the opposers’ part. They don’t know. They just don’t understand what’s going on.”
Word of Faith member Maxine Shawber, of Detroit, said the church has pure intentions.
“We wouldn’t do anything that would harm anybody in the community and we wouldn’t do anything to hurt the workers who work there, because I truly believe in my heart that (the well) is a blessing from God,” Shawber said.
Fitch said the MDEQ has no time frame in place for a decision.
A representative from Word of Faith could not be reached for comment by press time.