If the PGE candidates win the election, what happens to the environment in Warren County?

Oil well by house

PGE Board of Commissioners: Oil and gas drilling in residential neighborhoods is safe and creates jobs!

The Warren County Zoning Ordinance allows conventional oil and gas drilling in residential neighborhoods. In 2016, this became an issue in North Warren, where a well was drilled in the floodplain just over 100 feet from Conewango Creek and just over 200 feet from the nearest neighbor’s house. 

The tank farm was placed alongside busy State Street within feet of a neighborhood school bus stop. Well-drilling equipment and vehicles were parked at the site for months. The well pad was covered by floodwater at least once, damming up stormwater that created unwelcome and long lasting duck ponds in at least two backyards. And on multiple occasions neighbors complained about gas and oil fumes. When an oil spill occurred, fluid-soaked refuse was left onsite in the open bed of a dump truck for weeks, fouling the air downwind.

Will more residential neighborhoods in Warren County become working oil fields?

Unfortunately, as rural oil reserves play out, untapped (or less tapped) residential areas may now be among the most desirable locations left to drill. Conveniently, when blighted houses are demolished creating gaps in residential neighborhoods, drillers may see an opportunity. Proclaiming economic benefits and increased job opportunities they will seek support from the PGE Board of Commissioners to open residential neighborhoods to the drill, and will likely find the Board extremely sympathetic. If that floodgate can be opened, it is imaginable that oil and gas companies will buy cheap houses, demolish them, and drill.

The only pesky limitation on drilling in residential neighborhoods is the state’s setback rule of 200 feet from the nearest house. But that rule is under assault. New legislation in the Pennsylvania Senate essentially eliminates the setback for conventional well drillers, a deregulation effort the PGE Board will no doubt embrace, perhaps by hiring a lobbyist to plead for the bill in Harrisburg, a concept for which there is precedent.

Senate Bill 790 is sponsored by Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati—serving (oil and gas interests in) Cameron, Clearfield (part), Clinton, Elk, Jefferson, Mckean, Potter and Tioga Counties—and also sponsored by Senator Scott Hutchinson, serving (oil and gas interests in) most of Warren County, as well as Butler (part), Clarion, Forest, and Venango Counties.

Scarnati’s and Hutchinson’s bill states: “[If] the distance restriction would deprive the owner of the oil and gas rights of the right to produce or share in the oil or gas underlying the surface tract, the well operator shall be granted a variance from the distance restriction. . . .” (Section 305 (a))

So, if SB790 becomes law, the “owner of the oil and gas rights” will have legal dominance over the property rights of those in residential neighborhoods, including, of course, the homeowner, but also the church, and the small business owners who work from their homes or in houses that have been repurposed into offices. Home owners willing to invest in remodeling will not be happy when the view from their shiny new kitchen is dominated by a pumpjack. In the hierarchy of property rights, homes may be on the surface, but home values are still far beneath oil and gas rights.

Senator Joe Scarnati is reported to have received $593,312.98 in campaign contributions from Energy and Natural Resources companies. In a 2017 article in the Bradford Era about an alleged campaign impropriety, Senator Scarnati is quoted as saying, “. . .my legislative decisions cannot and do not take contributions into account.”

Senator Scott Hutchinson has received $24,550.00 in campaign contributions from Energy and Natural Resources Companies.

In addition, SB790 would pre-empt local ordinances from preventing conventional drilling: “. . .all local ordinances purporting to regulate conventional oil and gas operations regulated by this act are superseded. The Commonwealth, by this section, preempts and supersedes the regulation of conventional oil and gas wells.” (See Section 706)

Local municipalities (like Grant Township in Indiana County) are increasingly dissatisfied with state regulations that fail to protect the clean air and pure water promised by the Pennsylvania Constitution’s Environmental Rights Amendment. Some municipalities take stands against the worst environmental excesses of the oil and gas industry by democratically passing community rights ordinances. Courts may favor pre-emption as an implied state right, but just to make sure, the Pennsylvania legislature now aggressively asserts their authority by including language in bills that further fortify pre-emption and further suppress local democracy.

Notably, this applies to the City of Warren. Listed under Prohibited Uses in the City’s Code is “Drilling of oil, gas or other minerals, except in industrial districts.” However, even if SB790 is not passed, would the City choose to defend its oil and gas drilling prohibition in court, especially if sued by an oil company with deep pockets and no moral reservations in suing cash-strapped local governments?

Unlike Grant Township, it seems unlikely the City of Warren, which has been a Home Rule Municipality since 1972, would stand on the principle of community rights. But if the City does suggest it will take a stand, the PGE Board of Commissioners could use various financial tactics—for example, dawdling to commit support for a downtown development or building renovation—to pressure the City to strike the prohibition from its Code.

And if any citizens or neighborhoods outside the City band together to propose an amendment to the County Zoning Ordinance that prohibits oil and gas drilling in residential neighborhoods or which requires increased setback distances from oil or gas wells to schools or t0 municipal water sources, expect the PGE Board of Commissioners to summarily vote down any such proposal (as the current Board did in 2017 when DEP’s Water Source Protection Plan proposed a drilling ban on land above the underground reservoir supplying all of North Warren’s municipal drinking water). Water is life, except in Warren County politics.

In this twilight era of conventional oil drilling across the counties of the Allegheny watershed, and as the remaining conventional oil and gas companies become more desperate to maintain profit flow, a PGE Board of Commissioners would predictably take exceptional measures to support the industry and increase conventional oil drilling opportunities, even if that turns neighborhoods into oil fields.

If there is ever a future proposal for an oil or gas well on the grounds of the Warren County Courthouse, expect the future PGE Board to approve it on a unanimous vote. After all, a working pumpjack in the shadow of the Courthouse clocktower will serve as a fitting symbol of the PGE Board of Commissioners.

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Threatened Plant Species Prevalent in Chautauqua Lake

Tray of various aquatic plants.
Aquatic plants collected in Chautauqua Lake. Photo by Racine-Johnson Aquatic Ecologists.

Report find 22 aquatic plant species, one threatened and concentrated in South Basin

LAKEWOOD, NY June 19, 2019 – A late-spring third-party survey found 22 species of aquatic plants in Chautauqua Lake, one of which is a threatened species under state regulations that is concentrated in the lake’s South Basin.

Racine-Johnson Aquatic Ecologists of Ithaca, NY, prepared the report, Late Spring 2019 Presence and Abundance of Aquatic Plants in Chautauqua Lakefor the Chautauqua Lake Association. It found that Potamogeton hilli, commonly called Hill’s pondweed, exists throughout the lake.

New York State classifies Hill’s pondweed as a threatened species and found it prevalent in both lake basins, though scientists catalogued the greatest concentration lake-wide in the southern end of the South Basin. The CLA presented the 114-page report’s findings to the state Department of Environmental Conservation this week.

“The importance of having a robust healthy macrophyte [aquatic plant] community in the littoral zone [the area where plants grow] of Chautauqua Lake is essential to the overall health of the lake,” the report stated. “A decrease in macrophyte species diversity, richness and abundance has the potential to lead to a decline of the world-class, warm-water fishery dependent upon thehabitat that aquatic plants provide.”

The report profiled plant species in the lake since record keeping started in 1937, observing that the mean frequency during that time is 24 species.

Racine-Johnson, and its predecessor Cornell Ponds, performed annual lake-plant monitoring under contract to the Chautauqua Lake Association since 2002. Racine-Johnson executes scientific plant studies on lakes throughout New York and beyond. The firm is also well known for its work in understanding the role that herbivores serve in controlling the invasive Eurasian watermilfoil, one of two invasive species the report found in the lake.

Sampling Team collects and sorts aquatic plants.

“Eurasian watermilfoil is well established and widespread in the lake; however, a suite of invertebrate herbivores attacks the plant at various times of the year, significantly limiting growth of this non-native,” according to the report.

“The extremely large populations of insect herbivores in Chautauqua Lake, documented yearly since 2002 by Cornell University and Racine-Johnson Aquatic Ecologists, provide the lowest- cost, most-effective control possible of excessive growth of Eurasian watermilfoil,” the report continued.

“Therefore, conservation of these essential biological control agents is paramount in maintaininga healthy Chautauqua Lake.”

Excessive macrophyte growth remains as an ongoing concern . . .as it has for at least the last 100 years.

Late Spring 2019 Presence and Abundance of Aquatic Plants in Chautauqua La

“Excessive macrophyte growth remains as an ongoing concern for stakeholders of Chautauqua Lake, as it has for at least the last 100 years,” the report noted. “The lake is eutrophic [very nutrient rich] and shallow eutrophic lakes generally fall into a macrophyte [aquatic plant] or algae-dominated waterbody. Today, an algae-dominated lake would likely have large numbers of harmful algae or cyanobacteria.”

“The lake requires a macrophyte-dominated littoral zone that competes against an overabundance of cyanobacteria [HAB] to remain a healthy ecosystem with good water clarity and an excellent warm-water fishery.”

The report explained how the aquatic plants take up nutrients and block wave action that would cause nutrients to be more prevalent throughout the water column, which in turn results in growth of troublesome blue-green or cyanobacteria HAB blooms.

In describing the publicly perceived excessive plant growth, the report noted that the “area withmedium and dense growth of macrophytes is actually very small in relation to the total surface area of Chautauqua Lake.” It further noted that “a large percentage of the littoral area has only atrace occurrence of plant growth.”

The report also addressed the role that the invasive Curly-leaf pondweed serves in Chautauqua Lake.

“The plant provides important early season habitat for fish and invertebrates, while slowing or preventing excessive early growth of Eurasian watermilfoilelodea and coontail. Curly-leaf’searly growth outcompetes or displaces other species in the competition for space, food, or other resources, reducing early growth of Eurasian watermilfoil and native species, thereby saving management monies.”

The plant begins to die in late spring and disappears in early summer.

“Chautauqua Lake’s macrophyte community is species diverse and overwhelmingly dominated by desirable plant species,” the report concludes.

The complete report can be viewed on the lake association’s reports tab of its website:www.chautauqualakeassociation.org.

New York State awards CLA $100,000 to thwart new invasive plant species

The report’s release comes shortly after the announcement that New York State awarded the CLA $100,000 to thwart new invasive plant species through the Watercraft Steward Program of boat-launch inspections.

The program allows the CLA to provide watercraft stewards on boat launches on Chautauqua Lake, Cassadaga Lake and Lake Erie. In 2018, the CLA’s watercraft stewards interacted with 10,326 boaters, inspecting 5,685 boats of all sizes, shapes and propulsion methods.

The DEC prohibits boats and equipment from entering or leaving DEC launch sites without first being drained and cleaned.

“This is a smart, effective program that focuses on prevention and proactivity,” said Douglas Conroe, executive director of the Chautauqua Lake Association. “We’re grateful for the funding because this program has already proven its preventative value.”

The grant is for three years. In 2019 and 2020, the CLA will combine it with $39,900 from a Chautauqua County Occupancy Tax-funded grant in 2019 and a $15,000 Lake Erie Watershed Protection Alliance grant. Total program for the CLA is $194,800

This most recent funding, however, is unrelated to revenue shortfalls from New York and local municipalities that means the CLA can only hire 27 workers instead of 42, as in 2018, to harvest and clean the lake this summer.

The CLA’s lake services operating budget for 2019 is $640,000, down from $730,000 last summer. New York contributed $150,000 last year, but nothing toward the 2019 operating budget. The villages of Bemus Point and Celoron, and the towns of Chautauqua and Ellery, also contributed nothing this summer.

More about the Chautauqua Lake Association

The Chautauqua Lake Association traces its beginnings to 1946 and its actual formation in 1953. The current focus is to perform environmentally sound plant-control practices, undertake scientific monitoring and relevant research, service the shoreline in promotion of maintaining healthy conditions, and promote educational efforts to enhance public understanding of lake association methods and lake needs. MORE