Southfield residents alarmed by church drilling plan

Mark Hicks
The Detroit News

When longtime Southfield resident Bonnie Ayres learned that oil drilling was proposed for a church property in the city, she immediately rejected the idea.

“Who had the idea that back here in the woods is a good place for an oil well?” Ayres said. “It shouldn’t even be considered. There’s too much at stake. It takes only one drop and you can just contaminate thousands of gallons.”

That’s why she joined about 800 people who packed a Southfield High School auditorium Wednesday evening to opine to Michigan Department of Environmental Quality officials about the request.

The state 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 the Word of Faith International Christian Center’s 110-acre site at Evergreen and Nine Mile that includes wooded areas.

The company and the church agreed to an oil and gas lease. Jordan Development leaders have said the company cares about the environment and would not be doing hydraulic fracturing or fracking on the property.

“A successful oil well would be very beneficial to the church and surrounding community,” Word of Faith officials say on their website.

MDEQ led the public forum to hear from the community before moving ahead. High interest pushed the department to extend a deadline to decide on the project, said Hal Fitch, chief for its Office of Oil Gas and Minerals.

He and Jack Lanigan, an area geologist with the office who shared a presentation about the operation, both stressed to the crowd that a conductor pipe in the drilling is required to be at least 100 feet below bedrock and 100 feet below fresh water.

Fitch added that denying a permit would open the possibility for a lawsuit over property development rights. “That’s just something we have to consider when we’re weighing all these factors,” he said.

The MDEQ officials also cautioned that even if a permit is approved, it doesn’t rule out the need for ones locally or from other entities.

Southfield has a moratorium in effect until April 28 on oil and gas extraction and mining operations there. City Attorney Sue Ward has said the municipality was preparing to seek an injunction if the state issues a permit.

Addressing the audience Wednesday night, Mayor Ken Siver said his administration opposed the drilling. He mentioned the many city residents who rely on well water and the natural areas near the church.

“We don’t want anything to happen to the parishioners, we don’t want anything to happen to our residents ... our natural features,” he said.

The mega church is led by Bishop Keith Butler, a former Detroit city council member. Butler is a Republican activist who lost the 2006 GOP U.S. Senate primary to Oakland County Sheriff Michael Bouchard.

Though many who filled the high school for the sometimes contentious hearing hoisted signs signaling their opposition, some favored the proposal.

“You must base your decision on your own rules that you set in place,” said Stephanie L. Jones, a Word of Faith member. “Please do not allow anyone to stake their political reputation and political career by trying to impede the progress of Word of Faith — a church that has helped millions of people.”

But others in the audience passionately cited concerns that drilling would lower property values, increase emissions, pose a risk of contamination and other issues associated with oil drilling in a densely populated area. Some also feared a repeat of the water crisis in Flint.

“People are very leery about anything that could be near their water table,” resident Debra Cain said.

Fitch stressed that “this case is separate and distinct from Flint,” and his office was not involved.

U.S. Rep. Brenda Lawrence, D-Southfield, acknowledged the difference but said reservations remained.

“We have ordinances and we have rules,” Lawrence said. “This is something new to the community, and if it meets all the criteria … then we have another journey to take to protect the residents of this community.”

State Rep. Jeremy Moss, D-Southfield, has introduced a bill requiring that a permit not be issued for oil or gas well drilling in a county with 750,000 or more people unless the proposed site is at least 2,000 feet from a residential building and the MDEQ holds a public hearing. The bill also calls for proposed wells to comply with local laws.

At the start of Wednesday’s hearing, Moss again called for the Word of Faith permit to be denied. “The risk, I believe, is too great,” he said.

Nora Langdon, a Word of Faith member for about 30 years and longtime city resident, turned out to show support. She stressed the drilling is exploratory and Butler has “already said he would help the community. If it’s not there, it’s not there. But if it’s there, he’s willing to help other people.”

Langdon also disagreed with naysayers comparing the potential operation to the Flint water crisis. “It’s separate. They don’t have their facts straight.”

The existence of other drilling operations didn’t persuade members of the Southfield Community Coalition, which represents more than 100 associations.

“That doesn’t mean it has to happen here,” Treasurer Diana Peagler said while standing near others wearing bright orange “Stop the Drilling in Southfield Now” T-shirts. “We’re going to do everything we can to fight it. ... This is a human issue, a people issue.”