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Judge halts Pennsylvania law on shale oversight

| Thursday, April 12, 2012

Local officials applauded a state court decision on Wednesday to delay implementation of part of the new state law governing Marcellus shale natural gas well drilling.

Commonwealth Court Senior Judge Keith Quigley issued a 120-day injunction that will postpone the provisions of Act 13 relating to local zoning regulations.

The law, which was approved in February and goes into effect on Saturday, established impact fees on drilling operations in exchange for setting universal land-use standards that could override regulations established by local officials.

The injunction delays only the land-use aspects of the law while a lawsuit filed by several communities challenging its constitutionality works its way through the courts.

"It's the best news I've heard in quite awhile," said Ron Slabe, an Upper Burrell resident who is a vocal advocate for more stringent environmental, safety and zoning regulations on the burgeoning Marcellus industry.

"Act 13 is probably the most Draconian law in the whole country relating to natural gas," said Slabe. "It strips away local communities' rights."

A member of Local Authority Western PA (LawPA), a coalition of residents who object to state laws that take away local control of natural gas operations, Slabe said they are asking community leaders to sign letters protesting Act 13 and supporting the lawsuit.

Upper Burrell Supervisor Chairman Ross Walker III said the township's board signed a letter objecting to the law earlier this week.

"Maybe some of our hard work paid off," Walker said of the timing between the submission of the letter and the injunction.

Buffalo Township Supervisors wrote the coalition a letter of support, said Supervisor John Haven.

"I don't agree with what the Legislature did," he said. "I think we at the local level do everything better than the county and the state. For them to take zoning away from us, it's not right."

Several Alle-Kiski Valley communities approved ordinances in the past year that primarily address safety and nuisance concerns -- repairing roads damaged by heavy truck traffic; notifying officials and residents of operations and possible hazards; screening neighbors from noise, light and dust.

Some ordinances prohibit drilling in residential areas or require drillers to apply for special exceptions or conditional-use permits before operations can begin.

Those restrictions could be null and void if they don't line up with the new state standards.

"There shouldn't have been an Act 13 in the first place," Walker said. "I'm happy to hear an injunction was filed. They should keep the local communities in charge of themselves."

Walker and Dave Montanari, a Fawn supervisor, said they were waiting to see what happened at the state level before deciding what to do about the local ordinances they'd passed.

Montanari said Fawn officials were put in the awkward position of having to act on their local gas ordinance, which was ready to go and already scheduled for a public hearing, the day after the state law was approved.

Since they'd already put the time and money into crafting and advertising the ordinance, supervisors approved it so they would have some regulations in place until the state law went into effect.

Montanari said he's glad they went ahead with Fawn's ordinance since those regulations will be in place during the injunction.

However, Montanari said the injunction just prolongs the uncertainty over what steps municipalities should be taking -- amending ordinances to fall in line with state standards or leaving them be.

"We don't have a good understanding what portions of it are in effect," Montanari said.

Staff writer Jodi Weigand contributed to this report.

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