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Court: Neighbors’ input proper in gas drilling permit debate

May 31, 2019

HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) — Local governments can consider complaints about natural gas drilling operations from people in other jurisdictions when determining whether a company should be given a permit, Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court said Friday.

The justices ruled 6-1 that the Pittsburgh suburb of Jefferson Hills was entitled to hear from people in a neighboring township about the effects on health, safety and welfare from drilling by the applicant, Pittsburgh-based EQT, now the nation’s largest producer of natural gas.

The majority said Commonwealth Court wrongly described that input as speculative, noting that people were relating firsthand experiences with an EQT drilling operation in their township.

Jefferson Hills turned down the permit to build a 30-acre hydraulic fracturing facility in a business park zoning district with 16 wells and multimillion-gallon water impoundment ponds.

But a county judge overturned the borough council in 2016, saying EQT met conditions for a conditional use under the zoning ordinance.

Justice Debra Todd wrote that testimony from neighbors “as to the foul stenches, intense vibrations, loud and penetrating sounds, and increased levels of traffic and air and light pollution they continuously endured, in and around their homes, was both relevant and probative” about what borough residents could expect.

In the dissent, Justice Sallie Mundy said conditional uses are allowed as long as they meet zoning ordinance standards.

Mundy said the borough’s neighboring residents offered no evidence the wells would affect the community any more than hydraulic fracturing normally does.

“Instead, they presented speculative objections of a kind that courts have deemed insufficient to grant relief,” Mundy said.

She warned that the majority opinion undermined “long-established principles that a municipality may deny a conditional use only if the objectors’ evidence establishes a high degree of probability that the use will cause a substantial threat to the community.”

An EQT spokeswoman said in an email that the company was disappointed with the decision, calling the neighbors’ input anecdotal evidence from an unrelated work site.

“Each phase of EQT’s operations follows strict standards and guidelines. We work closely with state regulators and local officials in order to meet or exceed applicable law and address concerns regarding our operations. In addition, we routinely monitor each phase to ensure regulatory compliance, while also working to address any individual concerns,” EQT media relations and brand manager, Linda Robertson, said.

Jefferson Hills argued that the experience of its neighbors can help it “identify areas of concern that they wish an applicant to address, or to attach conditions tailored to avoid practices that endanger the health, safety and welfare of the community,” Todd wrote.

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