Grant Township supervisors voted unanimously on Thursday to defend an ordinance banning a wastewater disposal well, plunging the rural, northern Indiana County municipality into a federal court battle with Pennsylvania General Energy Co.
Board members voted 3-0 to continue fighting the Warren County oil and gas company with legal help from the nonprofit Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund based in Mercersburg.
More than 30 residents packed the small meeting room for the roughly 20-minute special meeting to decide how to proceed with the lawsuit filed by PGE. Residents worry that wastewater — laden with brine from drilling and injected 7,000 feet underground — will make its way to nearby Little Mahoning Creek.
PGE sought a federal permit to convert a natural gas production well to a disposal well, which would hold wastewater generated by horizontal drilling that employs hydraulic fracturing by using water, sand and chemicals. The well is about 7 miles south of the creek.
In June, supervisors approved a so-called Community Bill of Rights that bans disposal wells. On Aug. 8, PGE filed a federal lawsuit claiming the township ordinance illegally tries to trump federal law that regulates injection wells.
“I do not want to see an injection well put into this county. I can’t believe anybody does,” said Fred Carlson, chairman of the board of supervisors. “My personal opinion is that we go ahead with the ordinance. I cannot see us not trying to stop this.”
When Carlson asked the audience for a show of hands, no one in attendance said they supported allowing the disposal well.
Resident Martha Buckley said she is against the well, but she questioned the township’s approach to fighting it.
“The ordinance is unconstitutional,” said Buckley, who holds a degree in political science. “I am not comfortable with solving a problem by tossing the Constitution out the window.”
Buckley also said she worries that if the township loses in court, it will be on the hook for paying damages and legal fees for PGE.
“At this time, a judge has not said this is unconstitutional,” said Carlson.
The township expects to spend between $5,000 and $8,000 on its solicitor and court filing fees, he said, but the Legal Defense Fund is covering other legal expenses. The general fund budget for the township of about 700 residents is $265,000 annually, Carlson said.
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.
It’s unclear whether disposal wells will become another front in the fight; Pennsylvania has only 10 such wells.
Chad Nicholson, an organizer with the Legal Defense Fund, said about 150 municipalities nationwide have enacted a Community Bill of Rights to address everything from natural gas fracking to sewage sludge, but none have been litigated all the way through the court system.
Judy Wanchisn, 71, who founded East Run Hellbenders Society, the grass-roots group leading the fight against PGE’s well, said proceeding with the lawsuit was the only thing to do. The nonprofit group is named for a native salamander that lives near Little Mahoning Creek.
“This is a way to keep the wolf away from the door,” Wanchisn said. “We have to say to the corporations that we’re going to challenge your constitutional rights with our constitutional rights.”
Kari Andren is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-850-2856 or [email protected].