A lawsuit by oil and gas leaseholders seeking to end opposition to shale gas drilling near the campus of the Mars Area School District was dismissed Thursday by Butler County Judge Marilyn J. Horan.
Judge Horan, in a two-page decision, said the complaint lacked specifics and failed to link allegations to individual defendants. The lawsuit was characterized by defendants at a hearing last week as a “SLAPP suit,” a strategic lawsuit against public participation.
The original lawsuit had sought punitive damages in excess of $500,000 from defendants, including the Delaware Riverkeeper, Clean Air Council and several local residents who have spoken in opposition and filed an appeal against new Middlesex Township zoning rules that open up more than 90 percent of the municipality to shale gas drilling.
Their appeal is pending before Butler County Judge S. Michael Yeager, who has issued a “stay” order on enforcing the zoning ordinance, suspending the planned drilling of six wells on Rex Energy’s Geyer well pad, located along State Route 228, approximately 0.6 miles from the Mars School District campus and its 3,200 students.
“They claim our clients did something wrong but failed to allege any facts to show what they did,” said Vic Walczak, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, who represented the defendants at last week’s hearing. “That’s because what they claim -- speaking out and filing appeals -- are constitutionally protected actions.”
The plaintiffs, Dewey Homes and Investment Properties LLC and 12 individual landowners who have leased their shale gas drilling rights to Rex Energy, have 20 days to file an amended complaint. Ronald D. Amrhein Jr. did not respond to a phone message seeking comment about the decision and whether he would file an amended complaint.
SLAPP suits, which typically involve civil complaints alleging financial harm filed by companies against individuals or non-government organizations, are a legal tactic used to stop citizens from exercising political rights or punish them for having done so. About half the states have rules against SLAPP suits.
According to the Digital Media Law Project and Public Participation Project, Pennsylvania’s anti-SLAPP suit law, passed in 2000, narrowly states that citizens speaking about the implementation and enforcement of environmental law and regulations before a government body, agency or proceeding are immune from civil liability.
Don Hopey: 412-263- 1983, email@example.com or on Twitter @donhopey. First Published September 24, 2015 4:57 PM