Western Pennsylvania Communities File Lawsuit over Fracking Laws

Seven Pennsylvania communities at opposite ends of the Commonwealth have filed a lawsuit to block state laws governing hydraulic fracturing (fracking) drilling for natural gas.

According to The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the western Pennsylvania communities of Cecil, Peters, Mount Pleasant, Robinson, and South Fayette are joined by two municipalities in the east, Yardley and Nockamixon, a physician from Monroeville, an environmental advocacy group and several local elected individuals in filing the lawsuit in a state appeals court.

The lawsuit argues a law passed in February by Gov. Tom Corbett blocks key local ordinances governing fracking drilling. On Feb. 14, the state – at the behest of the Pennsylvania Utility Commission – establishes fees for drilling companies, enacts new standards on wells but also establishes where new wells can be dug, despite local laws in place.

Under the new law, municipalities which have passed laws before that date will now have about four months to adopt new laws, often requiring local communities to draw back bans and restrictions on fracking drilling or related activity. In the complaint, the suing parties argue that House Bill 1950 (H.B. 1950) is “an improper and arbitrary use of the commonwealth’s police power.” Further, the parties argue the new state law would create an environment of “predictability” for the natural gas and oil industries in the state.

The municipalities argue the state is putting the needs of drilling and energy companies before the public’s health and welfare. In addition, they contend that the hours and days spent drafting rules and ordinances locally to combat wanton fracking drilling that puts the public health and natural resources at risk.

Pennsylvania is at the epicenter of a massive expansion of fracking drilling in the U.S. Much of the state sits atop the Marcellus shale formation, believed to contain billions in natural gas reserves. Natural gas and drilling companies have spent the last five years acquiring land leases in communities situated atop the shale in hopes of someday opening fracking wells to get the gas underground.

Local communities have been busily constructing regulations or outright bans on fracking drilling for fear the activity could result in localized or widespread water and air contamination and is a threat to public health.

In addition to copious amounts of natural gas underground, Pennsylvania is also home to some of the most lax regulations on fracking, especially in the Mid Atlantic region where most new activity is located. A moratorium on drilling in New York combined with stringent local regulations have made drilling there difficult. In Pennsylvania however, drillers are hardly blocked by state laws and that has led to thousands of wells opening and widespread reports of problems blamed on the energy exploration process.

Chief among those complaints is that fracking drilling poses serious threats to the clean water supply, especially for people living nearest those wells who rely on water wells, not a public supply. Due to poor well construction and the unknown overall safety of fracking drilling, many believe fracking has resulted in serious contamination of those water supplies, especially with methane gas and other toxins used in the process.

Included in this new state law is also a provision which essentially acts as a “gag order” on doctors in Pennsylvania, who would be barred from discussing the agents used in fracking drilling if they see patients who believe drilling has caused their health maladies like breathing difficulties and skin irritations.

Names in the lawsuit as defendants, according to The Post-Gazette, are Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Michael Krancer, state Attorney General Linda Kelly and Public Utility Commission chairman Robert Powelson.

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