Residents to appeal move toward gas drilling near Mars Area schools

Opponents of shale gas drilling near the Mars Area School District campus in Middlesex, Butler County, say they will appeal Wednesday’s township decisions to approve new zoning rules that open up more than 90 percent of the township for gas drilling and development, including areas within a half-mile of the schools.

The opponents, including township residents and the environmental advocacy organizations Clean Air Council and Delaware Riverkeeper Network, say the new township zoning rule and a drilling permit for Rex Energy’s six-well Geyer well pad violate the environmental protections guaranteed by the state constitution and fail to protect public health and safety. About 3,200 students attend the schools near the shale gas well pad.

“The township’s decision to deny the [zoning] challenge puts Rex Energy and other gas companies’ interests above the health and safety of children and area residents,” said Joseph Minott, chief counsel and executive director for Clean Air Council.

The three members of the Middlesex Zoning Hearing Board, all of whom have leased their gas to drilling companies, voted unanimously Wednesday to reject opponents’ zoning and permitting challenges. Since last August, when township supervisors approved the zoning changes, the board heard testimony at nine public hearings on the appeal.

Harry Kaunert, the township manager, declined to comment on the decision, saying the board’s vote “speaks for itself.” He said the board members first voted to abstain, but the state ethics law allows them to vote if their abstentions would prevent the board form conducting its business.

“We’ve always understood that this is round one,” said Jordan Yeager, the lead attorney for the opponents in their zoning appeals. “Each of the zoning board members has leases with drilling companies, so there was no surprise in the ruling.”

In a statement issued after the vote, Michael Endler, Rex Energy’s regional vice president, said he was pleased with the board decisions, and the company plans to “promptly resume our well-development activities at the Geyer site.” He said the company will retest area groundwater sources, build sound abatement walls at the well pad and begin drilling work.

“Rex Energy remains steadfast in our commitment to safety and environmental compliance,” Mr. Endler said. “As activities restart, we will also resume our previous practice of providing operational updates to the Mars Area School District, local elected officials and emergency management personnel.”

The zoning board votes came less than a week after a corporate landowner and a dozen landowners who leased their gas rights filed a lawsuit in Butler County Common Pleas Court claiming opponents’ legal appeals of the zoning and drilling proposals were “a sham” and “frivolous,” and have caused them financial hardship. The 15-page lawsuit seeks damages, punitive damages and costs of more than half a million dollars for the alleged contractual interference and civil conspiracy.

Mr. Yeager said the leaseholder lawsuit fits the definition of a “SLAPP suit” — a strategic lawsuit against public participation. Such suits, which are banned in almost half of the 50 states, are defined by the Legal Information Institute at Cornell University Law School as strategic filings, usually by a corporation, “against a group or activist opposing certain action taken by the corporation, usually in the realm of an environmental protest.”

“The leaseholder action is the definition of a SLAPP suit,” Mr. Yeager said. “And this one is absolutely outrageous. They want to silence parents who are exercising their First Amendment rights to protect their children’s health.”

Richard Sandow, an attorney representing the leaseholders in the lawsuit, denied it is a SLAPP suit, and said his clients have suffered serious financial harm because of delays caused by the appeals of “outside interest groups with no reason to be here.”

“We’re trying to ensure that people who own property get their fair share for ownership of that property and full payment,” he said.

Don Hopey: or 412-263-1983. Twitter: @donhopey

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