ELK COUNTY, PA– With nearly 8,000 active hydraulic fracturing wells, Pennsylvania is one of the most fracked states in the nation – owing to its position above the massive Marcellus gas shale. Years after the fracking boom began, Pennsylvania is now suffering from a slew of problems related to the well-drilling technique that has allowed oil and gas companies to extract difficult-to-obtain gas within shale deposits – most recently facing the onset of artificial earthquakes caused by fracking.
However, fracking-related seismic events are the least of Pennsylvania’s problems when it comes to fracking. A 2015 study published in the Public Library of Science confirmed what many rural Pennsylvania residents have been trying to prove for years, finding that residents living in proximity to fracking wells are more likely to develop serious medical conditions and seek treatment at local hospitals. This, along with other studies confirming the toxicity of fracking wells and wastewater, has led some communities to take action, creating local constitutions to ban the practice of fracking altogether.
In 2013, the small township of Highland, located in Elk County, passed a local ordinance banning fracking wells within the town’s borders. But just months after the ordinance was passed, an attorney for Seneca Resources, a major oil and gas company operating in the area, told Highland Township supervisors that they would be targeted with legal action if they refused to revoke the ordinance.
A year later, the Environmental Protection Agency approved a permit for Seneca to construct an underground injection well, referring to a type of well used explicitly for the disposal of toxic wastewater, just a mile from the town’s water supply. Seneca refused to honor the town ordinance as a result and legal action was promised.
While Elk County was preparing for a massive legal battle with a major energy corporation, another Pennsylvania community was gearing up for a similar fight. In 2015, Grant Township – also in Pennsylvania – established the country’s first municipal charter establishing a local bill of rights to enshrine environmental and democratic protections.
The charter was drafted to help fight against assertions from the Pennsylvania General Energy Company and the Pennsylvania Independent Oil and Gas Association that fossil fuel companies have the right to inject wastewater, contesting that there was “no constitutional right to local self-government.” Like Highland Township, Grant has been embroiled in litigation with predatory fossil fuel companies in the years since.
In an unfortunate and ironic turn of events, both Grant and Highland are being sued over the laws that limit fracking in their communities by the very agency tasked with protecting the state’s environment. On March 27, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection took legal action against both townships, arguing that their fracking bans violate state laws on oil and gas extraction. This legal action was taken on the same day that the department issued fresh permits for wastewater disposal wells to both Seneca Resources and Pennsylvania General Energy.
Interestingly, the agency failed to mention that it had filed a lawsuit against the townships in its public announcement of the permit approval. However, department spokesman Neil Shader told National Public Radio that the department was not trying to retaliate against the townships, instead asserting that the lawsuits were filed “to get clarity” regarding whether state or local laws take precedence in such matters.
However, Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund organizer Chad Nicholson had a different take on the matter. Nicholson said in a public statement:
“Let’s be clear: our state agencies, tasked with ‘environmental protection,’ are legalizing harmful activities by issuing permits to corporations with histories of violations. And, they are doing so against the will and sovereign law of the people who live in the community.”
Nicholson’s sentiments were echoed by Grant Township Supervisor Stacy Long, who told National Public Radio that she was beyond disappointed in the news, adding “I find it ironic the Department of Environmental Protection is suing my township because we want to protect our environment.”