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Washington County residents speak against gas drilling

Gas well drilling companies can’t be counted on to follow the raft of ordinance changes being proposed in Peters, claim a group of Washington County residents who imparted what they said were their experiences with Marcellus Shale drilling to council Monday.

“This is a cautionary tale,” said JoAnne Wagner of Mount Pleasant Township, where the first Marcellus well was drilled 10 years ago. “Drillers not only take an inch, they take a mile. They will ignore your ordinances and do what they want to do.”

Ms. Wagner said drillers in her township have built facilities without seeking permits — or even making local officials aware of their plans. She did not list specifics.

She said she moved from Peters to Mount Pleasant in 2004, seeking a peaceful life in a country setting.

“Little did I know it would be the worst nightmare of my life,” she told council.

Ms. Wagner was among more than 100 residents who turned out Monday night for a public hearing into plans by Peters to revamp its shale drilling ordinance. Originally passed in 2011, parts of the ordinance were struck down by council last year after a 2013 Supreme Court ruling changed the drilling landscape for state and local officials.

Saying it wouldn’t pass legal muster, council eliminated a drilling overlay district, which would have required a minimum of 40 acres for drilling activities. About 15 such properties exist in the township, which has no drill sites yet, though driller EQT has a number of leases with local residents and the township is encircled by drilling in neighboring communities.

Now, council wants to replace those provisions with new ones that call for drilling to be a conditional use in light industrial areas. Such a designation would require a public hearing and other considerations before each new well could be approved.

There are several light industrial areas in the township, most notably along the western section of Valleybrook Road. Buckeye, Hidden Valley and Churchill roads also have small sections of light industrial zoning.

Because the township can’t ban drilling legally, this is the best option to regulate it and protect residents, township manager Michael Silvestri said.

“The township has been studying gas drilling since 2010,” Mr. Silvestri said. “It’s been a priority for the township.”

The new ordinance also calls for setbacks of at least 750 feet from any structures and pre- and post-drilling testing of the water and soil in the immediate area around a well site. Drillers must pay road bonds for any potential damage and must show the township plans for proposed truck routes. The ordinance also spells out specific requirements governing noise, dust, vibration and lighting near well sites.

For drilling-related facilities, such as compressor stations and processing plants, the new ordinance proposes they be located in light industrial areas of at least five acres. Drillers must prove they will not adversely impact neighboring properties.

“The ordinance puts the burden on the applicant that they’re meeting environmental requirements of the Pennsylvania Constitution,” Mr. Silvestri said.

Some residents urged council to tighten some of the guidelines and explore ways to enforce the rules. Because the new regulations fall under zoning, penalties are capped at $500 per day. Council members said state law prevents them from changing that, although they could seek a court injunction to stop drilling activity if a company isn’t in compliance.

“Five hundred dollars a day is nothing,” said Peters resident Seashal Belldina, who suggested the ordinance require drilling companies to notify the township about any spills, leaks or accidents within 24 hours.

In realted news, Washington County drilling hearing raises conflicts over contamination.

Only two spoke in favor of drilling during the hearing, including farmer Bob Simmons, who said the new ordinance was little more than a ban.

“It’s going to ban drilling from the vast majority of the township,” he said of the changes. “It’s really a ban on drilling in Peters Township.”

Mr. Simmons said he signed a lease with a drilling company and hoped to supplement his farm income with royalties.

“I have a lease you will be taking away,” said Mr. Simmons, who reminded council of a 2011 referendum to ban drilling. It was overwhelming defeated by voters.

He cited statistics that found no adverse health impacts for people who live near drilling operations, but others in the audience countered that other studies show the opposite.

“It’s council’s job to protect the health and well-being of all residents,” said Cheryl Ferris, who cited some studies between 2012 and 2014 that indicated people living within a half mile of gas well drilling had a higher risk of developing respiratory and neurological diseases and cancer than people living farther away. Thousands of people live within a half-mile radius of several light industrial areas in the township, she said.

Union resident Gary Baumgardner said sickening fumes on many nights from drilling at Trax Farms has driven him and his family from their home — located 496 feet from a well site. He said his infant granddaughter can’t visit the home because her doctor recommended against it.

“This industry absolutely distorts the truth,” said Mr. Baumgardner, who said drillers also disregard ordinances in his municipality. “Whatever they want to do, they do.”

Washington County pediatrician Edward Ketyer said a substantial and growing body of peer-reviewed research has shown potentially dangerous health impacts from drilling.

“Unconventional gas drilling threatens the health and safety of Peters Township residents, especially children,” he said.

Council voted to continue the hearing and will set a date for a second one by the end of this month. Council members said they expect to have one or two more hearings before making a decision.

 

This article was written by JANICE CROMPTON from Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.

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