Philadelphia News & Search
The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection has sued two tiny townships that have banned shale-gas wastewater disposal wells, setting the state on a collision course with municipalities over which entity governs oil and gas operations within a town’s local boundaries.
DEP on Monday filed suits in Commonwealth Court against Highland Township, Elk County, and Grant Township, Indiana County, seeking to invalidate the home-rule charters the towns’ voters expressly approved to ban wastewater wells.
The legal actions were unmentioned in DEP’s public announcement on Monday that it had approved long-delayed permits in the townships for disposal wells.
The permits would allow Seneca Resources Corp. in Elk County, and Pennsylvania General Energy Co. in Indiana County to dispose of wastewater from oil and gas production, including waste produced from hydraulic fracturing, by pumping into deep “injection wells” that in a former life had produced natural gas.
DEP says that under the Oil and Gas Act and the Solid Waste Management Act, the regulation of wastewater is a state function.
“The permitting and operation of wells for the disposal of brine, `produced water,’ `frack water,’ flowback, and other waste or by-products of oil andgas extraction and other fluids is exclusively and comprehensively regulated within the commonwealth by the department,” DEP stated in its suit against Highland Township.
Both townships fought long, unsuccessful battles with the gas companies over the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s approval of the wastewater wells. In a court settlement, Highland Township last year invalidated an ordinance to forbid wastewater wells, and then voted in November to approve a new home-rule charter expressly bans wastewater disposal within its boundaries.
Highland, with about 500 residents, and Grant Township, population 700, were counseled on their home-rule charter efforts by the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund, a nonprofit that has suggested novel legal strategies for local residents to resist unwanted developments. CELDF has attempted, without success, to get courts to recognize “the rights of ecosystems and natural communities to exist and thrive.”
A representative of CELDF and local officials could not be reached for comment Tuesday.
DEP’s court case could revisit some of the issues that were addressed in the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s landmark 2013 ruling in the Robinson Township case, in which the court struck down sections of the state’s Oil and Gas Act that superseded local zoning regulations.
In the lawsuits against Highland and Grant Townships, the state says the surviving sections of the Oil and Gas Act still pre-empts local regulation of oil and gas operations. The state asked the courts to invalidate the townships’ charters.
Philadelphia News & Search