Drilling firm challenges township waste ordinance

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PITTSBURGH – A gas and oil drilling company sued a Western Pennsylvania township, claiming an ordinance passed to ban the disposal of drilling byproducts like fracking fluids and briny water is illegal and trumped by state and federal law.


Officials in Grant Township, Indiana County, have yet to see the lawsuit filed late Friday by Pennsylvania General Energy Co. of Warren. But township Supervisor Fred Carlson said Monday the township’s own attorney advised the ordinance may be illegal. Supervisors of the township, some 60 miles northeast of Pittsburgh, are meeting today to discuss the subject.


“The meeting is in regards to withdrawing the ordinance because our attorney is saying it’s not constitutional,” Carlson told the Associated Press. “But another group of attorneys wants to help us fight it in court.”


The ordinance and resulting lawsuit were spawned by PGE’s plans to convert an old underground natural gas well to an injection well, where the company could dispose of fluids from drilling as deep as 7,000 feet below ground.


The company applied for a permit to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in May 2013 and received approval in March. The permit was appealed by some township residents to the U.S. Environmental Appeals Board in Washington, which has yet to rule. The company also applied in April to the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection for permission to convert the gas well, first drilled in 1997, to an injection well.


Carlson said the township itself didn’t have the legal authority to challenge the permit so the supervisors of the 694-resident municipality passed a “Community Bill of Rights Ordinance” in June.


According to the lawsuit, the ordinance prevents the “depositing of waste from oil and gas extraction” and rejects any “permit, license, privilege, charter or other authority issued by any state or federal entity which would violate” the law’s anti-disposal provisions.


PGE attorneys contend the ordinance should be struck down as unconstitutional and unenforceable.


Township attorney Robert Manzi Jr. did not immediately return a call for comment.


In recent years, numerous communities in Pennsylvania and other states have tried to find ways to limit or control energy projects, from oil and gas drilling to waste facilities, pipelines and even wind farms. While some of the attempts have failed, a landmark ruling from the Pennsylvania Supreme Court last year suggested communities do have a right to consider how such development could impact air and water quality and property values in crafting zoning rules.


The Grant Township ordinance is broader, however, and prohibits drilling waste disposal anywhere in the township and says it trumps state environmental laws.


“All laws adopted by the legislature of the State of Pennsylvania, and rules adopted by any State agency, shall be the law of Grant Township only to the extent that they do not violate the rights or prohibitions of this ordinance,” the ordinance states.


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