Range Resources, Mount Pleasant Township at odds over well sites

Driller threatens to pull out

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Mount Pleasant's shale gas drilling company is Range Resources. But maybe not for much longer.

The state's largest Marcellus Shale drilling company has threatened to discontinue its considerable drilling activities and economic support of businesses in the Washington County township because it says township officials are uncooperative.

A Range spokesman said the township's long-standing refusal to allow the company to temporarily house well foremen and workers in trailer-style bunkhouses on its drill sites prompted the warning, which is contained in one of two letters sent to Mount Pleasant residents by the company earlier this week.

But a township official said the letters, which don't mention the bunkhouse issue, are an attempt to intimidate township leaders as they near a vote later this month on a new "conditional use ordinance" to govern where and how drilling operations may operate in the township. The proposed ordinance, which has taken more than a year to draft, will require prior approval of the township's planning commission and board of supervisors for all new wells.

Gas well drilling in the township is now done under a "permitted use" that allows drilling under state regulations but requires no local approval.

"We are outraged," said Dencil Bachus, a Mount Pleasant resident and coordinator of a citizens committee that advised the township on the Marcellus ordinance. "This is an effort by Range Resources to divide a community on the eve of a decision on an ordinance that affects them directly. It's an attempt by the company to get what they want rather than operate within the [township government] process. It's a divide-and-conquer public relations strategy."

But Donna Seaver, a Mount Pleasant resident who has lease with Range to drill under her 40 acre farm, said if Range leaves it will hurt many residents and businesses.

"I see progress and growth and people with jobs as a result of the drilling," she said, We're lucky to have Range as the main operator in the township."

In one letter, sent to gas leaseholders in the township, Range threatens to take its drilling operations and purchases of goods, services and food to "more cooperative communities," and states, "we have revised our future long-term plans in the Township due to continuing difficulties with your Township supervisors and their unwillingness to work with us."

The letter says the revisions, "may prove detrimental to leaseholders," and warns that the company is considering suing the township in state or federal court. It invites leaseholders to a meeting the company is hosting to discuss its drilling plans in the township.

Over the last six years, Range has drilled more than 100 Marcellus Shale gas wells in the 36-square-mile township.

A second Range letter, sent to all 1,400 township residents, said the company planned to comply with a "model ordinance" it wrote that "covers nearly all aspects of natural gas production that could possibly cause concern."

Matt Pitzarella, a Range spokesman, said that although the company wasn't happy with Mount Pleasant's conditional use ordinance because the local drilling approval process will make it harder to plan drilling operations, the letters were not an attempt to influence the vote on the ordinance. He said the company remained frustrated about Mount Pleasant's refusal to allow bunkhouse trailers on well drilling pads.

"If we continue to experience issues with the trailers, we will explore other options," Mr. Pitzarella said. "This is the only township that I know of in the U.S. that allows no bunkhouses on drill sites."

Mr. Pitzarella said the bunkhouses were used by the industry to provide temporary housing for up to 26 workers. He said each well site should also have a trailer to house a drilling supervisor

"If the township continues to push this issue, we may have to challenge it in court or walk away," Mr. Pitzarella said.

But a decades-old township ordinance prohibits such "temporary housing," said Larry Grimm, chairman of the township's three member board of supervisors. He sees the bunkhouse issue as "settled" and the Range letters as an attempt to "incite" Mount Pleasant residents to pressure supervisors to defeat the proposed conditional use ordinance.

"The so-called 'model ordinance' was written by Range and is just an attempt to have the fox watching the henhouse," he said. They've been threatening us forever but we cannot allow that to influence our decisions. It's our sworn obligation as supervisors to protect the citizens of the township -- those with and without gas leases -- and that's what we're trying to do."

John Smith, a natural resources attorney who has advised Mount Pleasant on drafting its ordinance and is the solicitor in Cecil and Robinson Township, Washington County, said most of the municipalities around Mount Pleasant already use conditional use ordinances to regulate drilling.

"Such an ordinance can add conditions that may be specific to that site," Mr. Smith said. "For example, a well drilled next to a school might require different things than one drilled in the middle of nowhere."

Mr. Grimm said the township could document its attempts to work with Range in written correspondence and at "dozens of meetings." He said it could also document Range's illegal attempts to house workers on three different well sites in the township since 2007. Each time Range was cited and fined. It has appealed one of the fines.

"If Range wants to pull out, let it pull out," said Mr. Grimm, calling the company's bluff. "But we're not talking about stopping drilling in any way. We want the township residents to get the money they're entitled to in their leases. But many residents have told us, while they're not opposed to drilling, they just want it done right."

The public hearing on Mount Pleasant's conditional use proposal is scheduled for 6:30 p.m., Tuesday, and final action on the ordinance is scheduled for 6:30 p.m. April 27. Both meetings are in the township municipal building in Hickory.

Range's meeting for its leaseholders is scheduled from 6 to 8 this evening in the Hickory Fire Hall.

Don Hopey: dhopey@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1983.


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