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Westmoreland

Penn Township fracking showdown begins in court

Jacob Tierney
| Friday, April 13, 2018, 5:00 p.m.
The Poseidon well pad in Penn Township was the first fracking well to be undertaken by Huntley & Huntley Energy Exploration of Monroeville.
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The Poseidon well pad in Penn Township was the first fracking well to be undertaken by Huntley & Huntley Energy Exploration of Monroeville.

The court showdown over hydraulic fracturing in Penn Township began last week, but it won't be concluded until June.

Nonprofit group Protect PT has challenged the township's zoning ordinance, which allows hydraulic fracturing wells in both industrial and rural-zoned areas, which comprises most of the sprawling community.

The anti-fracking group contends wells should be limited to industrial zones.

“Industrial gas drilling is an industrial operation, no matter how much the industry says it's not,” said Gillian Graber, executive director of Protect PT.

The township, its zoning hearing board and the gas drilling companies who do business there say the township's ordinance includes protections for residents, and that legal precedent set in other Pennsylvania communities allows fracking in agricultural zones.

“This was a very long and very well-deliberated process, where we ended up developing an ordinance that is one of the most comprehensive and strict in Westmoreland County,” said Michael Korns, the Greensburg lawyer representing the township.

Huntley and Huntley Energy Exploration and Apex Energy joined the lawsuit in support of the ordinance.

Both sides began arguing their case last week with two days of hearings before Westmoreland County Judge Harry Smail Jr.

Due to a busy court schedule, the final two days of hearings are scheduled for June 4-5.

Last week's hearings were focused on expert testimony from both sides.

Protect PT's experts focused on the argument that fracking is a heavy industrial process.

Previous Pennsylvania court cases have ruled fracking need not be limited to industrial zones.

“The people who fought the cases previously have not been able to show the court that fracking is an industrial use,” Graber said.

Protect PT hopes to prove the opposite, by focusing on the heavy equipment and extensive drilling methods needed for fracking.

“I think our position, generally, is that Penn Township is different,” said Pittsburgh lawyer Ryan Hamilton, representing Protect PT. “This is a rural residential community, and there are multiple well pads being proposed in close proximity to those residences.”

The township and its allies argue that the previous lawsuits already have settled the issue.

June's hearings will move away from experts and focus on people in and around Penn Township who have a stake in the fracking issue.

Protect PT will call on residents who live near well sites to talk about their experiences.

The township will feature testimony from those involved in the years-long process of creating the zoning ordinance.

Korns said the township's ordinance was carefully crafted.

“The last township that should ever be challenged like this is Penn Township,” he said. “The case just doesn't make sense.”

Both sides said they were confident.

“I think they're going well,” Graber said. “I am hopeful that (Smail) will see our arguments. The mineral extraction (zoning) overlay is this irrational scheme that allows industrial processes outside of industrial zones.”

Korns said he didn't want to presume the judge's decision, but felt Penn Township has a good chance of emerging victorious.

“I think we have a very strong case, and I'm sure the judge will look at that, and I believe that he will find for us,” he said.

There are currently two unconventional hydraulic fracturing wells operating in Penn Township, with others in various planning stages.

Smail will decide the fate of fracking in Penn Township after June's hearings.

Jacob Tierney is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 724-836-6646, jtierney@tribweb.com or via Twitter @Soolseem.

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