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October 11, 2013

Officials: Few options with drilling permits

NEW CASTLE — Pulaski Township officials said they have few options in approving gas and oil lease permits.

Over the past year, the township supervisors have approved multiple conditional use permits for gas and oil drilling. Some residents have criticized the supervisors, stating they need to consider potential harm to the environment and other problems drilling could cause.

However, at a recent meeting, Supervisor Lori Sniezek stated the supervisors may not consider anything but whether the applications comply with the township’s zoning ordinance.

If the supervisors were to denied a permit for any other reason, she said, the community “would be embroiled in an expensive legal battle that could quickly bankrupt this township.”

Sniezek also said the three supervisors have been criticized because they hold oil and gas leases.

She pointed out “… at this point, it would be very difficult to find three residents to sit in this position that don’t have a gas lease.”

Richard Harper, the township’s solicitor, agreed the supervisors cannot turn down applications for conditional use permits for any but zoning-related issues.

“State law requires that gas wells be permitted in every zoning district and municipality in Pennsylvania,” he said, adding the supervisors may not impose controls regarding water quality or waste discharges by such wells.

He noted there are pending Pennsylvania Supreme Court cases to determine to what extent local municipalities can regulate gas and oil.

Supervisor Sam Varano added the supervisors “have been turned in” to numerous agencies by residents who questioned their actions, but they always have been exonerated from any wrongdoing.

At their Oct. 7 meeting, the supervisors approved the written decision, findings of fact and conclusions of law for their latest conditional use permit request, granted after a Sept. 16 hearing.

Hilcorp Energy Co., 2000 Wilmington Road, had requested the permit for one horizontal gas well on the Laird and Joyce Whiting property, 3140 Garner Road. Hilcorp previously was issued permits to install and operate four vertical and horizontal wells on the property.

Sniezek recused herself from voting on the matter at both the September and October meetings because she is employed by Hilcorp.

Two women objected to the permit during the Sept. 16 hearing. One, township resident Suzanne Matteo, had given testimony regarding “water contamination by the applicant at prior sites, at prior times and in other locations” according to the supervisors’ decision.

However, the supervisors stated in that document that the township “ ... has no legal authority to deny the petition on the basis of such evidence and that regulation of water quality by the township is preempted by state law and the sole province of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection.”

Matteo also had testified in September that Hilcorp previously drilled two wells at the site without township approval. The supervisors pointed out in the decision their previous rulings authorizing each well at the site. Matteo’s testimony “is therefore discredited and afforded no weight,” their conclusions stated.

Thursday, Matteo said the zoning regulations give the township the authority to impose limits on noise, traffic and hours of operation on the drillers.

Carrie Hahn of Volant, who also objected, was deemed to have no standing to testify because she neither owns township property nor is a resident. Her testimony, as a result, was stricken from the record.

 

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