Act 13 ruling buoys residents near Trax Farm gas well

Union Township homeowners want more local control




On Dec. 19, the Baumgardner family began to hope again. It was a rare good day among four months of bad days for a family living 500 feet from a Marcellus Shale well pad.

On that day, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court declared unconstitutional parts of Act 13, which limited local zoning control in favor of a statewide standard guiding where natural gas wells could be drilled.

Georgann and Gary Baumgardner saw the ruling as a turning point in their struggle against EQT Corp., which began drilling in early November on nearby Trax Farm in Washington County, just over the Allegheny County line. The process has been wafting diesel fumes, noise and vibrations into their home -- and seems to be consuming their lives.

One day, their bedroom air monitor flashed orange and the odor drove the family out of their Cardox Road house for hours. Another day, their daughter Rachel Cecchini, then eight months pregnant, moved out of the house next door and into a rental home several miles a way -- abandoning the painted nursery and her 93-year-old grandfather.

EQT has built sound walls, put residents up in hotels and offered cash settlements, while Union Township has debated the merits of residents' complaints and the company's efforts to address them at many public meetings since drilling began. Yet the state Supreme Court ruling may alter the outcome of this intransigent battle.

John Smith, an attorney at Smith Butz who successfully challenged Act 13's municipal zoning restrictions before the state Supreme Court, said the court's decision has empowered townships to challenge gas development.

"Now, the sentiment is not only can we do something about it but we have an obligation to do something about it," he said.

Mr. Smith, who serves as solicitor for Cecil and Peters townships, believes the court's decision paves the way for townships to regulate not just where a well can be placed but what environmental controls the operation should have to qualify for a permit.

Monitoring the situation

People on Cardox Road knew that drilling was coming. Everyone on the street signed a lease with Chesapeake Energy between 2009 and 2011. The Oklahoma-based company drilled one horizontal well on the pad in 2013. Later that year, EQT bought that location and began developing its own wells last fall.

Of the 13 families living on the block, some have found the process more tolerable than others.

Mickey Gniadek lives down the street from the Baumgardners and isn't much bothered by the noise or the industrial activity except for a bad day in early December when he went to pick up his mail and saw a white cloud and smelled chemicals in the air. Then he began to feel as if he couldn't breathe.

"All of a sudden, my chest feels like it's collapsing on me," he said. He began to develop red spots on his head, eyes, and cheeks, which took up to two hours to subside.

The Southwest Pennsylvania Environmental Health Project, a nonprofit in Washington County that treats patients who think they've been impacted by oil and gas drilling, has installed air monitors in several homes on Cardox Road.

Andy Tullai, chairman of Union Township supervisors who lives on the street, has three air quality monitors and uses a cell phone app to monitor noise and frequency. When something seems askew, he fires off an email to the township's zoning officer.

The noise at his home, about 650 feet from the well site, isn't as intense as at the Baumgardners, but it's enough to keep the family up at night. "When you try to sleep you hear this moaning, this grinding," he said. "I put earplugs in and it still comes through. You can't stop it. You can't stop that low-frequency noise."

Mr. Tullai said he and his wife get up in the middle of the night and turn on the TV to drown out the sound.

"We've lived here 31 years. They've come at the end of October and they took our lives away. We want our lives back."

Some residents have turned on Trax Farm for allowing the well pad so close to their homes, even though Bob Trax, its president, says he had no say in the matter. "I feel bad." Mr. Trax said. "I pressured [EQT]. I said please settle, please pacify, please make do."

Company trying to help

EQT is frustrated, too.

"This is not a blip on our radar," said Linda Robertson, manager of media relations with EQT. "We have spent a lot of time and energy, and I think there are some people who have understood the attempts we've made."

The company has tried to resolve the problem, said Peter Grieb, a municipal consultant who serves as Union's zoning enforcement officer.

"They've made it known to the township and to us that they are more than willing to work with us to mitigate problems," Mr. Grieb said. "They were responsive -- it's just they kept trying things and they didn't work."

On all sides of the issue, there's a sentiment that there's only so much the company can do to ameliorate concerns given how close the well pad is to the homes on Cardox Road.

On Jan. 22, the township called a special meeting to discuss the Trax well. EQT asked residents to bear with it for the next three weeks while the company finished drilling 11 vertical wells, after which it would do another baseline sound survey.

To drill the horizontal sections would require a different rig, one that EQT community relations manager Nathanial Manchin promised would be less noisy and have fewer emissions.

"The [township] supervisors basically said, that's fine," Mr. Grieb said. "But if there is [another problem], we're going to shut you down as you figure it out."

The past week marked four weeks since the township meeting. Mr. Grieb said the latest word is that the company will finish by Monday.

Tony Cecchini, the Baumgardners' son-in-law, thinks the hotel vouchers and the sound studies are a delay tactic, and he doesn't have the time. His baby is due March 6.

EQT also has put compensation offers on the table of $50,000 per household. The money comes with the condition that residents will release EQT from any liability having to do with property or health damage. That's a standard clause for such contracts, noted Ms. Robertson.

The majority of residents have taken the deal, Ms. Robertson said.

So far, Mr. Gniadek has refused. "I can't sign this piece of paper," he says. "You're basically asking me to give up my life for you -- so next time something like this happens again ... ."

Back in local hands

Blaine Lucas, an attorney with Babst Calland, estimates more than 270 municipalities in Pennsylvania have passed more than 300 ordinances since 2010 aimed at regulating oil and gas activity.

After Act 13 was passed, about 35 municipalities adopted ordinances to comply with its limitations, he said, and a similar number were in the midst of such efforts when litigation over the act's constitutionality began. When the Supreme Court invalidated the relevant sections of the law in December, it likely killed such efforts, Mr. Lucas said.

"One would expect that in light of the decision, at least some municipalities will become more aggressive in their attempts to regulate the industry," he said.

Union Township enacted an oil and gas ordinance in 2010 that set thresholds for noise. It proposed that well sites would be given conditional permits -- meaning their approval in certain zones would be contingent on meeting the conditions of the ordinance -- something that Act 13 put on shaky legal ground.

With the Supreme Court's decision, the township now feels it can use the sound ordinance in its regulation of EQT's activities at Trax.

For its part, EQT maintains that it never violated the sound ordinance and that its data shows the diesel emissions in the air never got to an "excessive" level, said Natalie Cox, director of corporate communications. "Some people have settled with themselves that this is temporary. 'I can get through this. In a year, [it] will be back to normal,' " she said.

Be 'a good neighbor'

Mrs. Baumgardner wants EQT to buy her home. She said she wouldn't feel right selling it to someone else because she can't vouch for the immediate disturbance or long-term impacts drilling nearby might have on health and property.

Mr. Gniadek's demands are harder to quantify. He wants the company to be a "good neighbor," to show more concern when he feels his health is in danger.

When a Chevron well in Greene County exploded Feb. 11, EQT officials should have knocked on his door and calmed his fears about something like that happening at Trax, he said.

"We're 500 feet away. Five hundred feet. That's insane," Mr. Gniadek said. "My house would be gone."

The Greene County fire, which burned for several days with flames so hot that firefighters couldn't get within 900 feet of it, has added new urgency to Union Township's efforts, said its solicitor Dennis Makel.

"That makes you think twice now about having oil and gas wells close to people's homes," he said.

Mr. Baumgardner has begun going to other township meetings, waiting until the comment period and recounting his experience living near a well pad.

"I'm here as a resident," his statement goes. "What you're hearing is not the truth."

He ends it with this: "Act 13 has been declared unconstitutional. The power is back with the people."

Anya Litvak: alitvak@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1455.

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