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Upper Burrell residents seek crack down on drilling in residential areas

| Tuesday, Feb. 5, 2013, 12:02 a.m.

Upper Burrell residents want township officials to crack down on natural gas and oil drilling in residential areas.

Several people regarded last week's zoning hearing board decision to grant permission to Penneco to drill two oil wells off Hartge Road as the last straw — especially since Penneco drilled the wells before the permits were granted.

Angelcrest Drive resident Ron Slabe noted it was the third time the township had lost a permit case against Penneco; the zoning hearing board previously granted two other permits for the McCrady wells off Whitten Hollow Road.

“Penneco has circumvented and basically thumbed its nose at the township,” Slabe said.

No one from Penneco attended Monday's supervisors meeting or Thursday's zoning hearing board meeting.

On Friday, Ben Wallace, chief operating officer for Delmont-based Penneco, said the company opted to drill the Hartge wells before the permits were issued because they were advised by their attorneys that they had a strong legal case and were confident the permits would be granted.

“We weren't being disrespectful,” Wallace said. “We believed that we had a very strong case that these wells were a legal use and were not in violation.”

The zoning hearing board agreed with Penneco's argument that the wells, on former farm property owned by William Herman, were a permitted use because drilling there predated the township's zoning ordinance that prohibits drilling in residential zones.

Since wells first were drilled there in 1991, the zoning board ruled drilling was a pre-existing, nonconforming use and therefore grandfathered under previous laws.

Residents disputed the new wells are on the same drilling pad as previous wells, one of the factors that weighed in Penneco's favor. Wallace said the 1991 well is between the two new wells on the same pad, which he estimated to be 300-by-200 feet.

Supervisor Chairman Ross Walker said he does not believe the township will appeal the zoning hearing board's decision.

Slabe and others asked the township to change the way well permits are issued. Rather than going through the zoning officer and the zoning hearing board, the residents would like to make drillers request a conditional use permit that is considered by the planning commission and supervisors.

Slabe believes the township would have more latitude to work with drillers, including negotiating drilling hours and noise levels that are less onerous to neighbors.

Hillview Drive resident Rose Ann Dombroski, whose home is near the Hartge wells, said the noise, light and vibrations were a nuisance.

“What can be done to protect the residents from some of the side of effects of gas and oil wells popping up throughout township?” she questioned.

Wallace said, and township Manager Amy Rockwell confirmed, that Penneco hired a sound engineer who worked for about a week to measure noise levels and reconfigure the well site, including the addition of hospital-grade mufflers to the drilling equipment.

Residents didn't think the changes made much impact and asked supervisors to do more in the way of enforcement.

Slabe also requested that supervisors consider hiring an additional attorney who specializes in gas and oil laws. “We have one guy fighting the whole Penneco army (of lawyers).”

Walker said they are considering having someone assist township Solicitor Steve Yakopec, who was not present at Monday's meeting.

Although drilling is finished at the Hartge site, Baxter Drive resident Leon Yurkin said he fears Penneco will begin drilling at the Tutelo site off Milligantown Road. A grading permit there was granted but a drilling permit denied; Rockwell said Penneco has not appealed the denial.

Wallace indicated Penneco is trying to work with the township while still protecting their business interests.

“We have tried our best to be good neighbors. We're not trying to be hostile to the township, but at some point we have to abide by the laws and regulations that exist,” Wallace said. “Drilling has to occur somewhere. Gas and oil are the fabric of our culture and society.”

Liz Hayes is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-226-4680 or lhayes@tribweb.com.

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