South Fayette challenge to drilling rules heads to court
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South Fayette is continuing to battle Range Resources over Marcellus Shale drilling regulations, while at the same time working to develop rules for the seismic testing used in natural gas exploration.
The legal challenge over the township's drilling ordinance has moved to Allegheny County Common Pleas Court. The commissioners and the natural gas driller oppose each other in the legal case, but both parties have appealed the South Fayette zoning hearing board's decision on the matter.
Township attorney Jonathan Kamin said Jan. 11 he agrees with the zoning board's ruling that it does not have authority over the case but disagrees with the board's assertion that two members with drilling leases do not have a conflict of interest.
"We didn't want to allow an inconsistent finding to go unchallenged," Mr. Kamin said.
He expected to hold a status conference with Common Pleas Judge Joseph James in late February or early March.
Deron Gabriel, president of the commissioners, said afterward that South Fayette "wishes to preserve the issue that some of the zoning hearing board members should be disqualified because they stand to gain financially as leaseholders if they decide this case, in the future, in Range's favor."
South Fayette's drilling ordinance, adopted in late 2010, prohibits drilling rigs in areas zoned for neighborhoods, schools, parks and farms.
In August, energy firm Range Resources, based in Fort Worth, Texas, with local headquarters in Cecil, mounted a legal challenge against the ordinance, saying it's invalid because it effectively bans drilling in the township.
The case first went to the zoning board, which has three members and an alternate. In November, the board decided that without drilling permits in the township that test the ordinance, there were no grounds for a ruling on the legality of the law.
Also, zoning officers Fred Cardillo and John Alan Kosky, who hold leases with Range Resources, denied any "immediate or direct pecuniary interest" in the decision.
South Fayette this year budgeted $20,000 for legal fees related to defense of the drilling regulations.
Meanwhile, township officials are considering whether to adopt a proposed ordinance that prohibits the use of explosives in seismic testing, an exploration method that sends vibrations into the earth to map underground features and natural gas pockets.
A group of township officials recently visited a blasting site, and during their workshop meeting last week they sought safety and technical advice from Ken Eltschlager, a mining and explosives engineer with the federal Office of Surface Mining's Appalachian regional office in Pittsburgh. As a government employee, he has dealt mainly with the coal mining industry.
When asked which seismic testing method is safest, Mr. Eltschlager said, "They're all going to have their pluses and minuses."
The chance of damage to nearby structures doesn't hinge on the method as much as the frequency and strength of vibrations, he said.
To create vibrations, blasting uses underground explosive charges, while thumper trucks drop weight to the ground.
Mr. Eltschlager said the maximum allowed vibration levels listed in the township's proposed ordinance are very conservative and well below the levels at which structural damage would occur.
He said if explosives are permitted, it may be wise for the township to hire an independent inspector to ensure blasting companies follow state guidelines for removing undetonated charges from the ground and double-capping shot holes prior to leaving a testing site.
First Published January 19, 2012 12:00 am