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Suit over Pennsylvania Marcellus shale law goes to judges

| Wednesday, June 6, 2012, 2:17 p.m.

HARRISBURG -- A constitutional challenge by seven municipalities to Pennsylvania's new law regulating the growth of natural gas exploration is in the hands of seven Commonwealth Court judges upon a hearing on Wednesday in which they repeatedly challenged lawyers from both sides in the closely watched case.

The municipalities want the law overturned; the state wants the case thrown out. The judges could ask for more evidence before making a final ruling or could strike down only parts of the law. Lawyers said they expect a ruling within several months.

The heart of the argument is the extent of the state's power to tell municipalities where they must allow drilling-related activity, including rigs, waste pits, pipelines and the compressor and processing stations that help move gas from the underground Marcellus shale formation in Pennsylvania to consumers across the northeastern United States.

Among the objectionable provisions cited in the towns' March 29 lawsuit are requirements that drilling, waste pits and pipelines be allowed in every zoning district, including residential districts, as long as operators observe certain buffers. Plaintiffs in the lawsuit include Peters, Robinson, Mt. Pleasant and Cecil, all in Washington County, as well as South Fayette in Allegheny County.

The 174-page law established the first major levies on the Marcellus shale industry in Pennsylvania -- allowing counties to set an impact fee on the booming industry -- and toughened some environmental and safety laws. Republican Gov. Tom Corbett signed the law Feb. 14.

The panel of seven judges includes five Republicans and two Democrats.

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