Indiana County township 'afraid for the water' fights waste well
The residents of Grant Township barely outnumber the gas wells dotting strip-mined hills of their northern Indiana County community.
Energy companies long have pulled resources from the 26 square miles south of Little Mahoning Creek with few complaints from the 700 or so people who live in the township's rural communities of East Run, Rochester Mills and Deckers Point.
It's what one company wants to put back into the ground that has people fighting back with an ordinance that's the subject of a federal lawsuit. Township supervisors must decide this week whether to defend their stance in court, despite case law that favors the company's side.
“Basically, we're afraid for the water. We just want to be in control of our own community, instead of letting a corporation come in and say, ‘You don't have rights. We're the ones with the rights,' ” said resident Judy Wanchisn, 71, who led the charge against a Pennsylvania General Energy Co. plan to place an injection well for disposal of drilling waste.
The well would hold waste generated by horizontal drilling that employs hydraulic fracturing, which uses water, sand and chemicals.
“It's their junk, their waste, and they should take care of it and not dump it on us,” Wanchisn said.
She organized a group that appealed PGE's federal permit to convert a production well to a disposal well, and with an environmental group's backing, she convinced township leaders to pass an ordinance banning such wells.
PGE this month sued the township, saying the ordinance violates federal laws. Through its attorney, Blaine A. Lucas of the Downtown firm Babst Calland, PGE declined comment because of the litigation.
The so-called Community Bill of Rights that Grant supervisors passed in June illegally tries to trump federal law that regulates injection wells, the company's Aug. 8 lawsuit claims. Further, the ordinance, “without any rational basis, treats corporations and governments seeking to inject waste from oil and gas extractions within Grant Township differently than similarly situated natural persons,” the lawsuit states.
The township's three supervisors will meet on Thursday to hear from residents and vote on whether to fight the lawsuit or retract the ordinance.
John Yanity, who owns the land on which the PGE well sits, said he does not oppose its conversion to a disposal well. He declined further comment.
Opponents worry that wastewater — laden with brine from drilling and injected 7,000 feet underground — will make its way to Little Mahoning Creek. The well is about 7 miles south of the creek. It provides popular spots for fishing and a home to the giant eastern hellbender salamander, the inspiration for the name of Wanchisn's group.
Generations of families in Grant have gathered in the swimming hole known as Big Rock. Runs and springs feed miles of the creek that provides Grant's northern border.
“It would be a crying shame to ruin all of this,” Supervisor Fred Carlson said.
The Government Accountability Office in July said the Environmental Protection Agency should do more to monitor injection wells but noted “few known incidents of contamination” from them. Earthquakes linked to injection wells in Ohio have increased federal scrutiny of them.
Wanchisn and Carlson don't oppose the drilling industry, just the waste wells. The township has more than 330 conventional, vertical wells producing gas, including some on Wanchisn's property.
Their partner in writing the ordinance and organizing support has a history of battles with the industry, though. The Mercersburg-based Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund drafted ordinances and supported petitions that sought to ban drilling, and promised to provide legal services to defend them against court challenges, in places such as Pittsburgh, Wilkinsburg and Peters.
When the EPA gave PGE an injection well permit, Wanchisn formed the East Run Hellbenders Society and asked the Mercersburg group for help. She said the group promised to provide lawyers in case of a lawsuit.
Carlson said he could not discuss legal deals. The legal defense fund did not return calls for comment.
Lawyers involved in fights between drillers and municipalities say courts have ruled that communities cannot enact blanket bans against specific activities such as drilling. Recent court rulings on the state's oil and gas law, Act 13, upheld local authority to pass zoning rules but officials must allow for some drilling, lawyers said.
“A lot of municipalities have a better understanding of the issues now,” said attorney Shawn N. Gallagher of Downtown firm Buchanan Ingersoll Rooney, a veteran of such lawsuits.
Towns still try to block related activities such as seismic testing, Gallagher noted. It's unclear whether disposal wells will become another front in the fight; Pennsylvania has only 10 such wells.
David Conti is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-388-5802 or [email protected].