Pennsylvania already has over 10,000 fracking wells. But with more pipelines and fossil fuel infrastructure in the works, there will be a push for new drilling, some of it in communities that have so far been spared by the ravages of fracking industry.
But fracking can be stopped by local leaders — we've proven it time and again.
A Food & Water Watch initiative called the Municipal Ordinance Project (MOP) is designed to work with communities to develop protective zoning ordinances.
It was developed to help Allegheny County’s residents and municipal governments prepare for unconventional shale gas extraction, commonly known as “fracking.”
Allegheny County is home to 1.2 million people and 130 municipalities, and it sits like an island in a sea of gas wells that are slowly encroaching into the county’s densely populated communities.
There’s something these communities can do to protect themselves. A 2009 Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruling determined that local governments have the exclusive right to decide where fracking and its related operations may occur within their respective municipalities. They can do this by enacting local zoning ordinances. Unfortunately, many communities have not taken appropriate action to protect themselves from fracking.
What we know about zoning and fracking
In 2016, Food & Water Watch reviewed over 105 Allegheny County municipal zoning codes -- and the results were shocking! More than a decade after the first unconventional well was drilled in southwest Pennsylvania, over 50 municipalities had no zoning ordinances on the books to govern drilling. Other municipal codes were woefully outdated, or non-compliant with current state law or recent court decisions.
So we got to work. We listened to local government officials, met with citizens to hear their concerns, and developed legally enforceable solutions and model ordinances. We launched community organizing programs in order to sustain public participation in the community planning processes. Throughout it all, the most important component of the MOP is working with the communities.
Since 2017, Food & Water Watch has successfully engaged with Allegheny County communities and their local governments in order to adopt appropriate, legally-enforceable ordinances. And elected officials in neighboring municipalities have taken notice, sought us out and initiated efforts to enact responsive, protective land use ordinances of their own.
We still have much to do. Many Allegheny County municipalities still lack appropriate zoning ordinances. And many homeowners and residents are not aware that their town’s zoning code allows for fracking in all of a community's zoning districts - including residential, parks, commercial and conservation districts. That puts residents at risk for the loss of their property’s value and exposes them to adverse health impacts.
Are you ready to protect your local community? Start with our Municipal Zoning Checkup.
Where We’ve Worked — and Won
Oakmont was the MOP’s inaugural effort in 2017. When we learned that Oakmont was going to be subjected to seismic surveys -- a step that drilling companies take to evaluate where they want to frack -- we successfully worked with the community and the Council to enact a seismic survey ordinance.
We also reviewed the borough’s code and advised that it should be updated. The code at that time allowed for fracking in residential districts -- but only in their parks! Today, Oakmont has a strong conditional use exception and has relegated drilling to an industrial zone with a 1,500 foot setback from homes and other buildings.
Throughout, the MOP partnered with Citizens to Protect Oakmont, an incredibly dedicated community organization.Thanks to their hard work, Oakmont is in a much better place.
Because of our work in Oakmont, we were invited to speak by the leader of the local group Sustainable Monroeville. We worked together, and in 2017 Monroeville adopted a seismic survey ordinance. Shortly thereafter, Monroeville amended its zoning code to limit fracking operations to its industrial zones. Previously, Monroeville allowed drilling as a conditional use exception in all of its zoning districts.
As a result of the victories in Monroeville, this municipality-- which is completely surrounded by Monroeville-- also adopted a seismic survey ordinance. This is the first instance where a neighboring municipality saw what was going on nearby and took action on its own.
Plum stands as a prime example of what can go wrong if municipalities fail to amend/update local zoning codes.
We have worked closely with the community to oppose an application by the drilling company Penneco to build an injection well. There are only 12 Class II injection wells in the state, which are used to dispose of liquid drilling waste. Pennsylvania is noted for not being geologically suitable for injection wells, and these wells have been linked to an increase in earthquakes.
In late 2017, over 200 people attended an EPA hearing to oppose the well. We also consulted with the government, which was in the midst of a comprehensive re-write of their zoning code, and injection wells were to be limited to the municipality's industrial zone.
Food & Water Watch's Doug Shields speaks at the EPA hearing to oppose the Penneco well in Plum Borough.
Unfortunately, the application for the well was made under the zoning code that was in place at the time of the application. As a result of not updating their code in time, both the EPA and the DEP have approved the permit. The borough has recently initiated another challenge against the pending injection well.
Plum residents already know the dangers that the fracking industry poses to their health and safety. When the first fracking well was drilled in early 2018, it was cited by the DEP for causing issues with nearby private water wells.
This municipality has been in the vanguard of local governments that have acted proactively to update their municipality. We have worked with the local Planning Commission to review their code and identify areas for improvement. As a result, Belle Acres adopted a default clause in their use table, a new code section on injection wells, and a seismic survey ordinance.
We were invited by local government officials In Leet Township (a neighbor of Bell Acres) to assist their planning commission in the development of protective ordinances. While Leet is a small municipality with limited planning resources, they recognized the need to act. After extensive research and drafting, we provided the Planning Commision with a set of recommendations that were later adopted by the Township Commissioners.
Leetsdale is adjacent to Leet Township, situated along the Ohio River. We have had consultations with members of the Leetsdale Planning Commission, and they are presently developing amendments to its zoning code.
Franklin Park, perennially ranked as one of the top three residential communities in the state, had no oil and gas zoning ordinance. In the summer of 2017, Food & Water Watch was contacted by a resident to see what can be done to prevent the borough from leasing the 80-acre Linbrook municipal park. The well pad was to be situated in the nearby Economy borough in Beaver county.
Despite a borough survey that showed significant opposition to the fracking deal the Council moved to approve the lease on December 19. Food & Water Watch mobilized the community and turned out over 200 people to the Council meeting. The matter was held, and a public hearing was held where 300 people showed up, the vast majority in opposition. At the next meeting the Council voted no on the lease. It also put forward amendments to the zoning code.
Working with the local group Protect Franklin Park, Food & Water Watch drafted a report and recommendation (with citizens input and participation) for the Council’s consideration. Many of the recommendations were adopted.
We have partnered with Communities First-Sewickley Valley, which advocates for responsible policies to deal with the threats posed by fracking and the Shell cracker plant in nearby Potter Township. In 2019, Community First-Sewickley founder, a resident of Edgeworth, lobbied the council to improve their zoning code. Edgeworth had no specific ordinances on the books. In early 2020, Council adopted measures that clearly protect the community. Due to community organizing, the council will consider additional amendments to its code.
Invenergy LLC, is making a fourth attempt to build a gas-fired power plant in an economically disadvantaged area of Elizabeth Township. Food & Water Watch is deeply engaged in the efforts to stop this project, providing assistance to the Mountain Watershed Association in organizing and alerting the community of this proposal. As a result, over 200 citizens attended a public hearing on the matter giving more than 3 hours of testimony in opposition.
Braddock, East Pittsburgh, North Versailles - U.S. Steel’s Proposed Edgar Thomson Wellsite
The fracking well proposed at the Edgar Thomson Mill, slated to be drilled in and under urban communities, could be one of the most dangerous wells in the state. Food & Water Watch has uncovered evidence that municipal officials in North Versailles Township acted undemocratically and perhaps unconstitutionally in approving the project. North Braddock Residents For Our Future is currently investigating options for an appeal on these points.
This fight is especially important because it raises broader questions about whether municipalities are not adhering to the Municipal Planning Code or their own ordinances. Essentially, municipalities are stripping the public of their right to due process. This is one of the many reasons that the Municipal Ordinance Project exists and why our work is so important.
MOP’s future: Building local power one town at a time
In the course of our work, we have informed citizens and elected officials about the basics of planning and zoning laws, giving them the tools to effectively fight the undue encroachments of the oil and gas industry in Allegheny County. We’ve won some important victories that will protect communities from the drilling industry. And we’re just getting started!
For more information about the MOP project, contact Douglas Shields (Western PA Outreach Liaison) at [email protected] or 267-428-1917.