Fracking application under review in Penn Township

A Penn Township zoning board is reviewing plans for a Marcellus Shale gas drilling operation at the eastern end of the township, considering what is the first application for hydraulic fracturing since commissioners started revising their zoning laws late last year.

The review is taking place after a public hearing last week when Apex Energy LLC presented its plans for the site near Route 22. A second hearing is scheduled for March 12.

“We want to know as much as we can so we can regulate this as well as we can,” said Dallas Leonard, director of community development for the township.

The quasi-judicial zoning board is responsible for reviewing applications for special exception permits for unconventional drilling operations. Those permits are required as part of the township’s comprehensive revision of its zoning laws, which commissioners passed in a draft ordinance late last year. While the township has yet to approve that measure formally, it has remained in effect, township manager Alex Graziani said.

The township plans to ban unconventional wells in residential areas. In areas where they are permitted, the township would prohibit them within a 600-foot buffer zone around homes, schools and businesses on properties less than 10 acres. Such wells are drilled into deep rock formations and involve fracking to produce natural gas.

That is roughly the distance between the nearly 90-acre planned drilling site and a senior living facility, the William Penn Care Center. The site is owned by Quest Realty Partnership, which operates the center and other facilities there.

A recently formed citizens group, Protect PT, has called for a 2,000-foot setback in the township, citing research suggesting a host of environmental and health risks related to fracking operations. It also cites the possibility of a decrease in property values.

The state requires at least a 500-foot setback from buildings and private water wells. But other municipalities in the region have put in place larger ones, including a 750-foot setback in Peters.

“Residents who live near natural gas extraction processes face the possibility of exposure to harmful chemicals,” Ryan Grode, an environmental health educator with the Southwest Pennsylvania Environmental Health Project, told commissioners at a packed special meeting earlier this month.

The meeting lasted three hours and included a wide range of comment from about three dozen speakers. The nonprofit is conducting studies to determine whether there is a direct correlation between the proximity of fracking operations and health effects.

For many farmers around the region, fracking could help lift their fortunes.

“We’re trying to hang on,” said township resident Lynn Young, who owns about 175 acres of farmland near Harrison City. Farming is “not a viable occupation anymore.”

Mr. Young’s family has owned the farm for generations. But Mr. Young, who has signed a few leases involving horizontal wells with another drilling company, Huntley & Huntley, said more and more farms are winding up in the hands of developers as a result of financial conditions. The prospect of signing drilling leases is considered a more favorable alternative, he said.

As for concerns about environmental and health risks, Mr. Young said opposition to fracking is largely “based on fears,” rather than definitive scientific evidence.

Apex has yet to receive approval from the state Department of Environmental Protection to start drilling at the site.

But while it has received state permits for two other sites in the township — including one in its Level Green area, which is less than 2,000 feet from a Trafford subdivision — it intends to comply with the township permitting process, said Mark Rothenberg, the company’s chief executive. He said the site, which is zoned for industrial use, is the most conducive to fracking.

“We want to be good neighbors,” he said.

But Mr. Rothenberg added that his company could begin operations immediately after receiving a state permit, even without the township’s permission.

“We do have business constraints,” Mr. Rothenberg said. “We just can’t wait forever.”

Township officials, for their part, are trying to balance concerns with accommodating an industry that pays significant dividends. In 2014 alone, the township received about $50,000 in fees paid by drilling companies for digging wells. Required under the state’s Marcellus Shale gas drilling law, Act 13, those fees have gone toward infrastructure improvements.

But they have sought to emphasize that before they passed the proposed zoning laws in October, the township had no fracking restrictions of its own.

“We wanted to safeguard ourselves,” Mr. Graziani said.

But even when the township does adopt the proposed rules, perhaps as soon as April, they are subject to change.

“It’s not in stone,” Mr. Graziani said, adding that in theory, the township could overhaul its ordinance six months after adopting it.

Jake Flannick, freelance writer: 

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