“America’s Radioactive Secret”. Rolling Stone’s Damning Article on Oil and Gas Waste Features Warren County Anti-Brine Activist

Warren County resident Siri Lawson stands on a dirt road near her home in Farmington Township. Photo by Fair Shake Environmental Legal Services.

America’s Radioactive Secret

by Justin Nobel

Oil-and-gas wells produce nearly a trillion gallons of toxic waste a year. . .making workers sick and contaminating communities across America

In the summer of 2017, Siri Lawson noticed a group of Amish girls walking down the side of a dirt road near the horse farm where she lives with her husband in Farmington Township, Pennsylvania. The girls, dressed in aprons and blue bonnets, had taken off their shoes and were walking barefoot. Lawson was horrified. She knew the road had been freshly laced with brine.

Radioactive oil-and-gas waste is purposely spread on roadways around the country. The industry pawns off brine — offering it for free — on rural townships that use the salty solution as a winter de-icer and, in the summertime, as a dust tamper on unpaved roads.

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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