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found unconstitutional.” Now some parents in the Mars Area School District say Middlesex Township misused its power when, in August 2014, it expanded zoning to allow oil and gas drilling and associated infrastructure — like gas compressor stations — throughout 90 percent of the township. That means drilling is now allowed on the farm adjacent to the Mars School District campus. Again invoking the Environmental Rights Amendment, the Delaware Riverkeeper Network and another Philadelphia-based advocacy organization, the Clean Air Council, along with four residents, challenged the zoning board’s decision in October 2014. The township upheld its own ordinance, and the organizations and residents appealed. This past July, a Butler County Common Pleas Court judge issued a stay on all activities on the well site until a September hearing. Drilling has already started on three of the five wells on the site. “The Mars ordinance is a municipal version of Act 13,” says Delaware Riverkeeper Network’s Maya van Rossum. “To allow drilling everywhere, in all variety of communities that we hold dear, it essentially backpedals on the protections that were secured in the Supreme Court victory.” The Geyer well pad is located behind the school campus on Bob and Kim Geyer’s 150-acre farm, which spans both townships. Bob Geyer told City Paper that he and his wife signed the lease with Rex Energy “five or six years ago,” but would not disclose for what amount. Their well permits date back to September 2014. “It’s approved by the DEP, and they’re responsible for the health and welfare of residents. … There was no problem until these people decided it was too close to the school,” Bob Geyer says. Kim Geyer, a former member and president of the Mars Area School Board, at one time rejected drilling on school property. “At that time, in 2009, oil and gas well drilling was not a regulated industry by the state. There were no rules, no state laws on the books, no state or department oversight, little data available, unanswered questions and so … we declined,” Kim Geyer told CP in an email. In March 2014, the school again rejected a deal — $1 million from Rex Energy for its mineral rights. Shortly after Act 13’s passage, Butler County hired Kim Geyer to study the law for its commissioner’s office. She’s now the county’s Marcellus Shale liaison and is a member of XTO Energy’s community-advisory panel. XTO is an ExxonMobile subsidiary with its Appalachian headquarters in Butler County.


Laurel Colonello, of Middlesex Township, protests the nearby well site.

“In the past three-and-a-half years, I have educated myself on the state regulations, the gas industry, and how responsible drilling can be achieved in a safe manner,” wrote Geyer, who would not speak about her personal situation. She’s currently running for commissioner. She says the impact fees (which have more than doubled since 2012 and to date total more than $ 3 million), have been positive for Butler County. According to fund-usage records, the county has spent about $1.1 million on public safety, with smaller amounts for social services, road construction and judicial services. Only $100,000 was earmarked for land conservation. About $ 1.3 million has been placed in a capital-reserve fund for bridges and 911 center updates.

DEP’s issuance of the permits to Rex Energy. “We sat across the table from Rex Energy, and we requested them to move the well pad outside of a two-mile radius, because when we’ve seen in the past reasons for evacuation, it’s always been a mile or two miles,” says Patrice Tomcik, a member of the Mars Parent Group who has two children in the district. “They said that it was not feasible because they already had too much money invested in the well pad .62 miles away.” Rex Energy did not return phone calls to confirm that statement. The publicly traded, State College-based company had more than 100 wells in the Butler area as of August 2014. Federal financial filings indicate the company has assets worth $1.4 billion and annual revenues of nearly $200 million. In the case of well fires in both Greene and Mercer counties in 2014 and 2015, local news outlets reported evacuation perimeters set at a half-mile and one mile, respectively. One Chevron worker died in the Greene County blaze. As Act 13 stands now, the buffer zone for drilling near any building — a school or not — is 500 feet from the actual wellbore, or hole, not from the perimeter of activities. The DEP would not comment on possible interpretations of building definitions because of the ongoing litigation. According to environmental-advocacy organization PennEnvironment, more than 30 schools across the Marcellus Shale region — from New York (which has banned fracking) down into Maryland — are within a half mile of wells; more than 220


WHILE LEGAL precedents and court decisions keep society ticking one way or another, the very real prospect of machinery just a half-mile away, pounding into the ground and releasing gas formed hundreds of millions of years ago, propelled Mars parents to organize. “You have allowed for the citizens of Pennsylvania to become the collateral damage for development of shale gas. The Mars Parent Group wrote to the PA General Assembly and Department of Environmental Protection in July 2014, after the auditor general released a report criticizing DEP’s oversight of the industry. The group’s website links to several studies on human health and proximity to natural-gas development; the homepage describes the group’s bafflement with the

PITTSBURGH CITY PAPER 07.29/08.05.2015

schools are within one mile. In Butler County, gas development sits anywhere from 900 feet to 2 miles from three elementary schools. “The industry has quickly become used to demanding permit applications and getting [them] without any serious review by local government,” says George Jugovic, attorney with the Harrisburg-based PennFuture, which brought cases against municipalities in Washington and Lycoming counties, where wells were proposed near residential areas and schools. The group advocates for safe gas development. “When a person says we have a right to develop land, that right is limited when that property is subject to local zoning. You don’t have the right to put in a drycleaning service [or] a steel mill. Those activities presumably get located in an industrial zoned district,” Jugovic says. “That’s the issue with shale-gas development. All indications are that it is plainly an industrial activity. How does government regulate that activity and still protect the rights of other property owners?” The DEP is in the process of rewriting regulations for the industry, to be released in 2016, and it could apply extra scrutiny if the perimeter of a well site is planned within 200 feet of a school. While the DEP wouldn’t talk, Jeffrey Sheridan, spokesperson for Gov. Tom Wolf, says that the administration is “committed to ensuring safety.” But advocates say that doesn’t go far enough. “There’s a fair amount of peer-reviewed literature of air impacts at much greater distances than what the DEP is considering,” says Nadia Steinzor of Earthworks, which is advocating for stricter regulations. “We’re calling on DEP to prevent oil and gas infrastructure near schools,” says Matt Walker of Clean Air Council. “DEP shouldn’t let it happen within a mile.” But David Yoxtheimer, a hydrogeologist with Penn State’s Marcellus Outreach Center, says that as long as “everything is done properly and according to regulations,” including air- and water-quality testing, “then yes, it can be done [that close] without having any direct health impact.” “There is another aspect here that when they are doing the drilling and fracturing, this tends to be a 24/7 operation, so you do have noise and light pollution. This is certainly where it does get tricky. You’re drilling near where people live and work,” he says. AND WHILE speaking out against drill-

ing projects is nothing new in this region, some companies and landowners who have financial interests in drilling want protesters to pipe down. In May, Dewey

Profile for Pittsburgh City Paper

July 29, 2015  

Pittsburgh City Paper Volume 25 Issue 30

July 29, 2015  

Pittsburgh City Paper Volume 25 Issue 30