Marcellus Life: A small town in Elk County struggles with rules for shale gas drilling

About a dozen St. Marys officials, outfitted with baggy blue jumpsuits, earplugs and white plastic hard hats, recently visited a Seneca Resources well pad on a wooded hilltop to see what fracking is all about.

This part of Pennsylvania, about 120 miles northeast of Pittsburgh in Elk County, has been relatively untouched by shale drilling. But people see it coming in two test wells Seneca has there now, with more wells in the future.

The usual characters are at play: Drillers promising money, jobs and a seat at the table; residents with concerns about the changes coming to their quiet town of about 13,000; and local officials with some power over where drilling occurs.

That power was restored last year when portions of Act 13, the state’s law governing oil and gas drilling, were thrown out by the state’s Supreme Court. Previously, Act 13 had created statewide rules that allowed gas development in all zoning districts, as long as certain criteria were met.

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Photos by Natasha Khan / PublicSource

But, in a 4-2 decision, the court gave back to municipalities the ability to create zoning rules and reasonable noise restrictions for drillers.

Towns still can’t regulate the technical aspects of drilling, such as the type of liner required for a wastewater impoundment. Those are the responsibility of the Department of Environmental Protection. And they cannot restrict drilling altogether.

But with the changes have come tensions. Energy companies want to be able to drill where they will. Residents want to restrict drilling near their homes and schools. City officials need to keep both sides happy without being too restrictive for drillers or too permissive for locals.

St. Marys city officials are being pressured by some residents to pass local zoning rules regarding Marcellus Shale drilling before it becomes commonplace.  

“I want to let [the drillers] get what they need to get, but I'm not going to do it to the detriment of the way of life up here,” said Lou Radkowski, a city councilman in St. Marys who visited the Seneca well pad.

If St. Marys doesn’t find the proper balance, it leaves itself open to legal challenges, like those filed in other areas of the state.

So far, it has been residents challenging municipalities over drilling laws they see as too favorable to gas interests.

 

  • In Westmoreland County, residents are challenging an ordinance passed by Allegheny Township supervisors that allowed drilling in all districts, including residential neighborhoods.

  • In Washington County’s Robinson Township (the township that led the court battle that overturned parts of Act 13), residents are fighting changes that make it easier to drill in residential and agricultural areas.

  • In Lawrence County, a Pulaski Township couple is challenging an ordinance supervisors passed that allowed drilling near their home.

  • In Butler County’s Middlesex Township, parents and environmental groups are challenging the town's supervisors over a rule that allows a well pad close to a school.

 

Jordan Yeager, an attorney representing Middlesex parents and groups, said it’s common for drillers to threaten city officials with lawsuits if they pass restrictive zoning laws.

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“Municipalities have often approached zoning decisions out of fear of litigation by developers,” he said.

“Obviously, any city is going to be more fearful of a lawsuit from the deep pockets of Seneca Resources,” said Mike Brock, a St. Marys resident and member of Elk County C.A.R.E.S., a local environmental group.

He said he hasn’t yet heard anyone talk about a lawsuit against the city, but there’s an awareness of what’s happening in other towns.

Seneca owns about 71 percent of the oil and gas rights in St. Marys and about 56 percent in Elk County. It has recently focused its drilling efforts on Elk, McKean and Cameron counties in the area.

“Pennsylvania law allows for Seneca to access its mineral properties and we will vigorously defend our rights,” said Rob Boulware, a spokesman for Seneca, in an email message. He emphasized that the company is working with the city to craft an ordinance they won’t end up in court over.

St. Marys
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Paul and Jodi Fleming outside their house in St. Marys. Their home is a little more than 3,000 feet from a Seneca well pad. (Photo by Natasha Khan / PublicSource)

Noise and trucks

Paul Fleming, a 49-year-old retired federal corrections officer, lives with his wife, Jodi, and two children in St. Marys. They live near a Seneca gas well in the city’s Rural Conservation District, which includes state gamelands, hunting camps and some homes.

He said the noise and the vibrations from the site keep them awake at night.

“It sounds like an airport that's running a circular saw,” said Fleming, who added that sometimes 50 to 60 trucks a day go up and down his road.

He used to have “absolute quiet” except for birds and crickets, he said. That all went away last spring when Seneca started building their pad, he said.

Fleming shows up at city council meetings urging local officials to pass a zoning ordinance with setbacks for well pads 5,000 feet from homes.

“They’ve been bothering me, and I’m over 3,000 feet away,” he said.

Details of rules up in the air

City officials said they’re listening to residents’ concerns.

“Striking a balance with all of the competing interests is not going to be easy,” said Tom Wagner, the city’s solicitor who wrote the draft ordinance.

One issue is the size of the area. St. Marys, though small in population, is the second largest city by land mass in the state.

"It's hard to make an ordinance that fits all areas of the city" said Dave Greene, St. Marys city manager.

Officials have been meeting with Seneca officials.

St. Marys map
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Map by Alexandra Kanik / PublicSource

“We are a lot better off working with them to get the best situation that we can get for our citizens and from the economic standpoint as well,” said Mayor Robert Howard.

But “I have to protect the citizens of this city and its watershed,” he said. “My God, if I can’t do that, then I’d be a lousy mayor.”

In talks with officials, Seneca has focused on the money it says Marcellus Shale drilling has brought.

“In the last 18 months, we've spent almost $25 million in Elk County on goods and services,” Boulware said in a statement emailed to PublicSource. “We've spent about $7 million in St. Marys.”

St. Marys has drafted changes to the city’s ordinance, but it is likely to change and final passage isn’t expected until early 2015, said Radkowski, the city council member.

The changes currently include a 1,000-foot setback from any dwelling, noise restrictions, a restriction against drilling in the city’s most populous areas and a “conditional use” section  that would require council to approve any new well pads in the city’s rural conservation district.

The city’s planning commission recommended the setback be increased to 2,000 feet.

According to an article in The Courier Express, Sally Geyer, a city council member, asked a Seneca lawyer at an Oct. 20 council meeting: “So, what you’re pretty much telling us is that if we adopt an ordinance that says everything (a well pad) has to be 2,000 feet away from anything (a dwelling), it is going to impact your business to the point where there could be lawsuits?”

Chris Nestor, Seneca’s attorney, replied: “That’s a pointed question, and I think the answer is yes.”

Boulware said if the city decides on a setback of 2,000 feet or more, Seneca wouldn’t be able to develop thousands of acres of land where it has oil and gas rights because the company also has to consider factors such as where water sources are.

But Brock, the St. Marys resident, called the argument “totally ludicrous.” Drillers have the ability to drill horizontally for miles underground, he said, therefore they should be able to drill away from homes.

It’s impossible right now to know what St. Marys ordinance will ultimately look like. Other towns, including nearby Ridgway Township, have discussed passing their own ordinances. There have also been preliminary talks about a countywide rule, Boulware said, which could create consistency for their operations because it would be a standard set of rules.

“What we think is that every municipality in Elk County is waiting to see what our city does,” Greene said.

Reach Natasha Khan at 412-315-0261 or at nkhan@publicsource.org. Follow her on Twitter @khantasha.