Plan to drill for oil on church site draws protesters

George Hunter
The Detroit News

Southfield — Joseph Person is a member of Word of Faith Christian Center, but instead of attending services Sunday, he stood outside the church with more than 50 others, protesting a proposal to drill for oil on the sprawling site.

“Southfield is a nice community, and we want to keep it that way,” Person said. “We know what it’s like around Marathon (refinery in southwest Detroit and Ecorse). ... We don’t want our community to be next.”

With the blessing of the church pastor, the Rev. Keith Butler, a former Detroit city councilman, Traverse City-based oil and gas exploration company Jordan Development in October applied for a permit with the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality to dig an oil well at the 110-acre heavily wooded church grounds at Evergreen and Nine Mile.

Jordan Development and the church agreed to an oil and gas lease, which was filed with the Oakland County Clerk’s Office.

Phyllis Turner is one of the protesters of the oil drilling plan Sunday at Word of Faith Christian Center in Southfield.

The state Department of Environmental Quality set a Monday deadline for anyone wishing to comment on the proposal. The agency was expected to make a decision on the application as early as this week.

An attempt to get a comment from Butler on Sunday was unsuccessful after two church employees told a reporter, “You need to get off the property now.”

Others inside the church said Sunday they weren’t authorized to speak about the issue.

The church’s website encourages congregants to write to the MDEQ with talking points that include: “A successful oil well would be very beneficial to the church and surrounding community;” and “The location of the well was selected by Jordan along with Word of Faith church at a location that will not interfere with the church activities nor the surrounding property owners nor the city of Southfield.”

Resident Roger Goolsby said he isn’t buying the claim that an oil well would be harmless.

“A lot of people in Southfield still use well water, and they don’t want this,” he said. “We also don’t want to kick open the door to allow more companies to start drilling for oil.”

Southfield’s acting mayor, Donald Fracassi, has stated publicly he wanted to get more information before deciding whether to support or oppose the plan. He was not available for comment Sunday.

As protesters shivered outside the church Sunday morning, a woman in a passing car asked Person what was going on. He told her about the drilling plan.

“I’m a member of this church, but Bishop Butler is wrong on this,” he told the woman.

Jann Hoge, left, Tanisha Moir and Peggy Collins brave the cold to protest a proposal to drill for oil at a church in Southfield.

“Only about 20 percent of the people who go to the church are from Southfield, so they don’t have a vested interest in this like we do.

“We can be anywhere we want on a Sunday morning, but we’re out here.”

William Cabe, who held a sign bearing the message “Thou Shall Not Drill,” said he has several concerns that include increased traffic and activity at the site, a few blocks from his home.

“We don’t want the trucks. We don’t want the lights. We don’t want the cleanup,” Cabe said. “We’re hoping this protest will bring attention to the issue.”

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