Prove your humanity

A dispute over a local law that opens up much of a Pittsburgh suburb to oil and gas drilling has made it to a Westmoreland County courtroom.

The citizens group ProtectPT is challenging Penn Township’s zoning ordinance, finalized in 2016, that allowed drilling in parts of the township zoned as “rural resource” areas.

These are typically open parts of the community, like farms and other sparsely populated areas. The community, about 20 miles from downtown Pittsburgh, contains a mix of planned suburban subdivisions and farmland.

The group is arguing that the ordinance deprives residents in more densely populated parts of the township their rights under the Pennsylvania Constitution to a clean environment.

The group wants the judge to limit fracking to a handful of industrial zones inside the township.

“We are saying this infringes on those rights because it pollutes the air, it pollutes the water through forcing chemicals into the earth and (by) polluting groundwater, as well as surface water for spills on the surface,” said Ann LeCuyer, of Trafford, Pa., which is part of the Penn-Trafford school district, and Protect PT’s project & outreach coordinator.

“There’s trucks, there’s the drill rigs, there’s the noise, all which would reduce not only our health but our enjoyment of our property,” she said.

The group is basing its lawsuit on the state’s Environmental Rights Amendment, Article I, Section 27 of the Pennsylvania Constitution, which declares that “the people have a right to clean air, pure water, and to the preservation of the natural, scenic, historic and esthetic values of the environment.”

The township has called its law a “reasonable” ordinance that balances drilling with environmental protection.

Among the witnesses called by the plaintiffs was Cornell University professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering Anthony Ingraffea. He testified that the process of fracking a well requires several pieces of industrial equipment, all of which can produce harmful emissions.

“These are all very heavy operations typically run by diesel equipment,” Ingraffea told Westmoreland County Court of Common Pleas Judge Harry F. Smail Jr. “All emissions associated with large diesel engine operations would be occurring.”

Other witnesses scheduled to testify for the plaintiffs were Pittsburgh-based pediatrician Ned Ketyer, and Tom Daniels, a land use expert from the University of Pennsylvania.

Testimony will continue this week, and is expected to resume in June.

The township has also sparred with a drilling company seeking to operate inside its borders. After the township denied an application from Apex Energy to drill there in 2016, the company sued the township for $300 million in damages. The two sides settled, with the township agreeing to drilling permits in exchange for provisions like air and sound monitoring.


This story is produced in partnership with StateImpact Pennsylvania, a collaboration among The Allegheny Front, WESA, WITF and WHYY.