A Marcellus Shale gas drilling company is planning to develop more wells in Penn Township, awaiting approval of the first of several new permit applications to conduct fracking operations in this rural community.
The plan by Apex Energy LLC calls for drilling as many as eight unconventional wells — wells that involve fracking — on a 115-acre tract along Dutch Hollow Road, in the eastern part of the Westmoreland County township.
It has not gone unnoticed, particularly by nearby residents who are worried that the operation could affect their water supply.
“We all have wells in the Hollow,” said Gene Meyers, who lives about two-tenths of a mile from where the 4-acre well pad is planned. “We are all concerned.”
A 57-year-old retiree who worked in the natural gas drilling industry, he was among several dozen people who turned out to a public hearing last week on the company’s request for a special exception permit. The Feb. 11 hearing was standing-room only, lasting about three hours and involving public testimony and cross-examinations.
He and others expressed concerns about the scale of the operation, which would involve the drilling of two wells simultaneously, and cited the poor condition of Dutch Hollow Road. In addition, they raised the possibility of abandoned mines on the site.
“This is going to affect our entire community,” Mr. Meyers said in an interview. He also noted that the site is downstream from the headwaters of Bushy Run Creek, which flows into Turtle Creek.
A township zoning hearing board responsible for reviewing the plan continued the hearing until Feb. 29, citing additional public comment. The board has 45 days to issue a decision after closing testimony on the matter, according to the state Municipalities Planning Code.
The planned operation, called the Beattie well pad, is a half-mile east of where Apex plans to conduct another similar-sized operation, this one on about 50 acres, said Bill Roberts, a community development officer with the township. That plan, called the Draftina well pad, is scheduled to go before the zoning board for the first time during a hearing at its Feb. 29 meeting.
They are the first of seven unconventional drilling operations Apex is planning to conduct in the township, accounting for dozens of unconventional wells. The Wexford-based company has already drilled for natural gas in the northeastern corner of the township, developing two unconventional wells on a nearly 90-acre tract near Route 22 that is a little less than two and a half miles north of the site of the Beattie well pad.
The company has not received drilling permits for the Beattie and Draftina well pads from the state Department of Environmental Protection. But land development plans for all seven operations are under review by the township planning and zoning commission, which accepted them earlier this month, Mr. Roberts said.
The township commissioners cannot make a final decision on those plans before they are approved by the state, even though the board is required to do so 90 days after the planning and zoning commission begins reviewing them. Apex, however, has given the township extra time to review the five remaining applications that have yet to go before the township zoning board.
Drilling operations are either under way or taking shape in other Westmoreland County municipalities, including Hempfield and Salem townships.
But the ones in Penn Township are particularly noteworthy because officials here are moving to adopt a revised zoning ordinance that would, among other things, open up more than half of the 30-square-mile township to possible fracking, including in areas zoned for agricultural use and mixed-use residential development. The draft ordinance, which has remained in effect since receiving preliminary approval in the fall of 2014, could go before the planning and zoning commission as soon as next month. Commissioners could decide whether to finally adopt it not long thereafter, perhaps in May.
That provision has drawn concerns from some residents, who contend that it jeopardizes the quality of life in the township by not confining fracking to industrial areas.
“We feel that the protection for the residents is just not there,” said Gillian Graber, president of the citizens group Protect PT.
Comprising residents of the township and surrounding municipalities, the group has sought to draw attention to fracking in this sleepy bedroom community, regularly filing Right-to-Know requests for drilling information. Last spring, it sued the township zoning board and commissioners, claiming that their approval of Apex’s first drilling operation in the township was based on insufficient evidence. A settlement was reached months later.
As for whether any legal challenges might arise this time around, that’s anyone’s guess.
“Litigation is always a possibility,” said Mr. Roberts, the community development officer.
Jake Flannick, freelance writer: firstname.lastname@example.org.