Pennsylvanians win in Commonwealth Court ruling

July 21, 2014

Municipalities that have been charging the castle over Act 13, the state’s two-year-old oil and gas drilling law, didn’t get everything they wanted in Commonwealth Court last week, but they got enough that they could wave the victory flag.

The sense of triumph felt by plaintiffs in the case should, in fact, be shared by all the residents of Pennsylvania.

After both the Commonwealth Court and state Supreme Court determined previously that the zoning provisions of Act 13 snatched away the zoning and planning rights of communities and gave too much latitude to the natural gas industry, the Commonwealth Court was asked to re–examine other outstanding issues, such as whether a “gag order” on doctors regarding chemical exposures could remain, and if the Public Utility Commission had the power to review zoning ordinances and withhold impact fees from communities whose ordinances, in the PUC’s determination, didn’t pass muster.

While the gag rule was upheld – a provision characterized by a Washington County plastic surgeon on the State Impact Pennsylvania website as being confusing and “intimidating” – Commonwealth Court ruled that the PUC needed to butt out when it came to local zoning ordinances. This was particularly important for the plaintiffs in the case, which included Cecil, Robinson, Peters and Mt. Pleasant townships in Washington County, because the PUC had the power to withhold impact fees in the course of giving the ordinances a look-see.

The challenges to the ordinances could be deployed by disgruntled residents or companies looking to exact a pound of flesh if they didn’t get their way – something that Cecil, Robinson and Mt. Pleasant townships experienced, along with South Fayette Township just over the border in Allegheny County. It was almost certainly no coincidence that, of the hundreds of municipalities across the commonwealth, the only ones that were subject to these challenges were these four, all of whom were plaintiffs in the suit against Act 13.

In fact, John Smith, a solicitor for Peters and Cecil townships, noted last week that communities he works for had been the recipients of “suggestions” from oil and gas companies that if they didn’t get the permits they wanted, they would have to pay attorneys fees in the resulting legal fracas and put their impact fees at risk.

“With this court ruling, that threat is gone,” Andy Schrader, a Cecil Township supervisor, told the Observer-Reporter last week. “We won’t have to deal with the PUC’s intimidation anymore.”

In fact, the need for local oversight of drilling activities was underscored in a story by Emily Petsko that appeared in this newspaper Sunday. It outlined how a research and public health organization, the Southwest Pennsylvania Environmental Health Project, which insists it is not an activist group affiliated with either the industry or its opponents, has been handing out air-quality monitors to residents near drilling sites and processing facilities in order to determine the degree of pollution in the air. The results, in some cases, have not been encouraging, with some residents saying they have measured results almost three times beyond the level designated as “very unhealthy.”

The officials who know their communities best and are charged with ensuring the health and safety of their constituents should not be forced to comply with one-size-fits-all regulations where natural gas drilling and its associated activities are concerned. It’s good to know that, for the most part, Pennsylvania’s most senior judges agree.



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