Brent Finnegan -- June 3rd, 2010
According to documents filed at the Rockingham County Courthouse in 2008, Tony Wilt, the Republican candidate for 26th district delegate, was one of many land owners in the Bergton area who leased land to gas and oil companies for natural gas exploration.
The 5-year lease agreement with R. L. Powell of Knoxville, TN (recorded by Infinity Oil & Gas of Denver, CO) for Wilt’s 40-acre parcel in Bergton states that the lessee pays $250 per year for each gas well on the property, as well as one-eighth of the net proceeds from the sale of the gas. The lease was signed November 8, 2007.
UPDATE: According to GIS records, Wilt has sold the property.
Wilt commented on the possibilities of drilling for gas earlier this week. His remarks in Wednesday’s DNR did not mention his lease agreement with Powell.
Wilt, who up until a year or so ago lived in Bergton, said after the debate that he was excited about the possibilities that natural gas could have for the region and state. Exploration would create jobs and revenue that could prevent tax increases, he said.
But his enthusiasm was tempered. “The process has to be studied,” he said. “The decision to do it has to be based on sound science.”
On Thursday’s call-in debate show on WSVA, caller Dave Briggman confronted Wilt about not disclosing the lease to Jeff Mellott, the DNR reporter. Wilt responded:
I’ve not hidden anything . . . We have to be very careful that we don’t step on the rights of private landowners. One that owns land has to have the freedom (within reason) to do with that piece of land as they see fit, that’s going to be profitable for them and their families . . .
To say that we were invested in the hydrofracking process is a stretch of the imagination to say the least. It was a nominal fee paid for those mineral rights. As the caller stated, there were a lot of folks in that area that signed the very same lease. It’s common practice throughout where ever companies come in to try to secure mineral rights . . .
The Board of Supervisors is working hard to determine if [hydrofracking is] going to be safe . . . Here’s a possible opportunity to create a new business that’s going to bring revenues into our area, and is going to help fund these things that we so badly need. It’s going to create jobs, it’s going to create revenues for the individuals that have the property. If done properly, it’s a win-win for everyone.
Audio of Thursday’s candidate forum is available on WSVA’s website.
The environmental and health concerns of natural gas drilling have been expressed to Harrisonburg City Council and the Rockingham County Board of Supervisors. From the DNR article about hydrofracking published February 26:
A half-dozen people – including conservationists and a retired environmental engineer – raised concerns about potential environmental impacts of the proposal at a public hearing during Wednesday’s Board of Supervisors meeting . . . the board tabled a special-use permit application by Carrizo (Marcellus) LLC to perform exploratory drilling in Bergton . . .
Carrizo would use a technique called hydrofracking to break up the shale and release natural gas trapped inside. Hydrofracking involves high water pressure and a mixture of chemicals to break the rock apart.
In May, Harrisonburg Mayor Kai Degner “submitted a resolution to council addressing the Rockingham County Board of Supervisors that expressed concern and asked the board to deny the requested special use permit that would allow the drilling.” Degner said he is not opposed to drilling, but believes that we need to have proper guidelines in place before we do it.
According to court documents, dozens of parcels comprising thousands of acres in the Bergton area have been leased to oil and gas companies.
File photo by Holly Marcus. This story may be updated as more information becomes available.