Testimony concludes in Penn Township fracking case

The fate of fracking in Penn Township is in a judge's hands after four days of testimony featuring more than 20 witnesses and more than 100 documents presented as evidence.

Local activist group Protect PT challenged the township's mineral extraction overlay in court before Westmoreland County Judge Harry F. Smail.

The overlay allows unconventional gas well drilling in rural and industrial zones.

The court heard from anti-fracking residents Monday. On Tuesday the township and the gas companies that do business there presented their side.

Township Community Development Director Bill Roberts said the township's zoning ordinance was developed over about seven years, in accordance with changing state and federal rules.

The township started working on a new zoning ordinance in 2009, updating regulations that remained largely unchanged since the '90s.

In 2012 state legislators passed Act 13, which limited municipalities' ability to restrict natural gas drilling. Parts of the law were overturned by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court in 2013.

The changing standards delayed implementation of Penn Township's ordinance, Roberts testified.

“We just kept adjusting as we moved along, until we ended up with the ordinance you see in front of you,” he said.

The ordinance includes limitations on sound, noise and traffic generated at drill sites, he said.

Protect PT questioned whether the gas companies influenced the development of the ordinance.

Ryan Hamilton, Protect PT's lawyer, asked Roberts numerous questions about township Commissioner Jeff Shula, whose son works as a geologist for Huntley and Huntley Energy Exploration, which has one active fracking well in the township and has several more in development.

Shula recused himself from voting on the final ordinance but was involved in shaping some of the earlier drafts.

Hamilton presented an email from Huntley and Huntley to township leaders.

It warned about outside activists and “anti-drilling ‘gypsies'” who would try to stop fracking.

On Monday, fracking critics said drilling would hurt property values, harm residential development and hurt quality of life.

Roberts said interest in residential development in the township has been growing. There are several housing developments in the works in the township.

“There is a very strong desire to develop in Penn Township right now, particularly residentially,” he said.

Two township property owners who lease mineral rights to Huntley and Huntley testified on behalf of the company, saying they might have to sell their land if it weren't for the royalties they're expecting from natural gas production.

Huntley and Huntley employee Jason Gehringer said there are already more than 200 conventional gas wells in the township, and the mineral rights to more than 65 percent of township land has been leased to oil and gas companies.

Chris Hess, vice president of land and business development for Apex Energy, discussed the large number of state and local approvals his company must receive to drill in the township.

The company has spent more than $12 million acquiring land and permits, and its Quest well site had generated $1 million in royalties for property owners, he said.

Protect PT director Gillian Graber said existing regulations will not alleviate residents' concerns.

“We don't think the conditions are strong enough... and the conditions will certainly not keep us from environmental harm,” she said.

She said the four days of testimony over two months were “exhausting.”

“I think it's for, hopefully, a good outcome,” she said.

Its up to Smail to decide whether the township's mineral overlay is legal, or if it violates state environmental protections.

That decision will likely not happen soon. Both sides need to submit their final arguments in writing — a process that could take months — before Smail begins deliberation.

Jacob Tierney is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 724-836-6646, jtierney@tribweb.com or via Twitter @Soolseem.

Posted: 06-05-2018


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