Harveys Lake citizens hear about drilling ordinance

Date: February 28, 2011

Law would protect rights to fresh drinking water and preserve eco-systems from gas drilling.

EILEEN GODIN Times Leader Correspondent

HARVEYS LAKE – Residents of Harveys Lake borough, adjacent to the largest natural lake in Pennsylvania of the same name, met Saturday to hear about a possible self-governing ordinance which would protect the municipality from possible problems caused by natural gas drilling.

The ordinance, written by the Community Environment Legal Defense Fund was given to the borough council in late summer with the request for a public meeting to be held for an open discussion of the ordinance.

Last month, the request was left dangling with a tie vote and a mayor who did not offer to break the tie. Residents, visibly upset, arranged for their own meeting to get the information out and ask residents to help put pressure on the council to schedule and hold a special public meeting.

Ben Price, program director of the CELDF, came in to help answer questions from a packed audience.

“What can communities do, to use their local government to achieve the ends they want?” Price said. “To protect the community and to be sure they can preserve it and they can create the kind of community they want to live in and pass on to their children and grandchildren.”

With grim faces, residents listened when Price explained the gas industry has many exemptions in its favor including the Clean Air Act, Safe Drinking Water Act, Clean Water Act, the Superfund Act and the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act. These exemptions seem to override any laws local municipalities could enact to prohibit the gas industry, Price said.

The 1984 Gas Act basically said local municipalities have no control over what the corporations do, said Neil Turner, Harveys Lake resident and co-organizer of the meeting.

Price said the best municipalities can do is regulate gas drilling through zoning laws. He said zoning laws can limit certain activities in certain areas of a municipality, on the surface. But he said nothing regulates the horizontal drilling that gas companies are now performing.

“You are never allowed to say no, in the zoning laws, to a legal permitted use of land,” Price said. “How do you know it is legal? Because they issue permits. A permit is a license to engage in an activity. What activity? Hydrofracking. An activity which has been exempt from the protection of federal and state laws.”

The Harveys Lake community is in a good position, Turner said, as a nearby Noxen Township well came up dry and EnCana Oil and Gas U.S.A. pulled out of Luzerne County after exploration results at two wells did not yield large amounts of natural gas.

The ordinance Price presented would establish a Bill of Rights for borough residents banning “commercial extraction of Marcellus Shale natural gas with Harveys Lake borough because that extraction cannot be achieved without violating the rights of residents and communities or endangering their health, safety and welfare.”

The ordinance also nullifies state laws, permits, and other authorizations which interfere with the rights secured by the ordinance.

The four-page ordinance claims residents have inalienable and fundamental rights to access, consume and preserve water drawn from the natural water sources within the borough and protect the natural ecosystems of the community.

Harveys Lake is a large watershed area which feeds into the Ceasetown and Huntsville reservoirs, which provide drinking water to about 100,000 Wyoming Valley residents. Concern over contaminated water from upstream flowing into the lake was also addressed.

The ordinance states “corporations and persons using corporations to engage in natural gas extraction in a neighboring municipality, county, or state, shall be strictly liable for all harms caused to natural water sources, ecosystems, and natural communities within the borough.”

The ordinance also has an enforcement section, which states any person or corporation found in violation of the provisions of the ordinance will pay the maximum fine allowable under state law.

Price said the ordinance is designed to give residents their inalienable rights afforded under the First and Fifth Amendment of the Constitution. He told residents it is not an easy fight.

The ordinance is similar to the one recently passed in Pittsburgh and Licking Township, Turner said.

Price then opened the floor for questions. Residents had several concerns over the possibility of being sued by a gas company over the ordinance. Price responded people can sue each other over anything.

Price said his agency will offer free legal services in terms of drafting and explaining the ordinance, and arguments. More than 120 similar ordinances have been adopted and only about five lawsuits have occurred, he said.

Copyright: Times Leader

Joe Price
Attorney Joe Price is a seasoned Trial Lawyer serving Northeast, Central and Southeast Pennsylvania for the past forty (40) years. He has handled serious personal injury cases in courts throughout the Federal system including New Jersey and New York. Attorney Price is A.V. Rated by Martindale Hubble. He is Board Certified in Civil Practice by the National Board of Trial Advocacy since 1996.