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Geokinetics challenges Monroeville's seismic testing regulations in court

Dillon Carr
| Tuesday, Oct. 24, 2017, 4:06 p.m.
An Apex Energy drilling-rig operation
Christian Tyler Randolph | Tribune-Review
An Apex Energy drilling-rig operation

A company hired to do seismic testing in Monroeville is challenging the municipality's recently enacted laws regulating the practice, which is often a precursor to Marcellus shale drilling.

Monroeville Council voted unanimously last month to pass a law that regulates seismic testing by requiring companies to pay $1,000 to obtain a permit, notify nearby property owners in advance of testing and obtain a $2 million liability insurance policy.

The testing firm, Geokinetics, in a complaint filed Oct. 11 in U.S. District Court in Pittsburgh, said the regulations were passed for political reasons and is asking a judge to strike them down.

“Monroeville's intransigence is not motivated by any legitimate concerns for the health and safety of its citizens, but rather by its council's concerns about November elections,” the complaint said.

Only two Monroeville incumbents — Linda Gaydos and Thomas Wilson, both Democrats — are in contested races in the Nov. 7 election. It's a seven-member council.

“It had nothing to do with my election, and it certainly wasn't for political gain,” Gaydos said about voting for the regulations that are being challenged. “Our job is to look out for our residents and follow directions of what they want.”

The regulations came after complaints that started during meetings in July from residents questioning the safety and other issues related to seismic testing and fracking. Adrienne Weiss, who has lived in Monroeville for 16 years, was one of the residents against development of gas wells.

“They want free reign for whatever they want to do,” Weiss said about gas well developers. “And that's typical. They don't care if (drilling occurs) on indigenous lands, if it hurts the rivers. ... I would like for the whole fracking industry to just go away.”

Monroeville oil and gas exploration company Huntley & Huntley hired Texas-based Geokinetics this year to do seismic testing in a 200-square-mile radius that includes Allegheny and Westmoreland counties. Huntley & Huntley officials have said they do not have plans for hydraulic fracturing operations in Monroeville, but seismic testing would help the company determine if drilling operations are viable in areas bordering the municipality.

The complaint, filed by attorney Kevin Gormly of the energy law firm Steptoe & Johnson, which operates in six states including Pennsylvania, also argues Geokinetics should not be bound by the regulations because the company had applied for a permit before the ordinance was adopted.

“An ordinance does not apply retroactively when it was not in effect or pending at the time of the filing of the application,” the complaint said. “The ordinance effectively prohibits seismic testing in Monroeville through arbitrary, capricious and unreasonable regulations.”

Geokinetics, in the complaint, emphasizes that seismic testing is a safe process. The testing involves setting off a small explosive charge in a shallow hole and then charting the sound waves as they travel through the earth, according to industry experts. Geophysicists can analyze that data to predict where there might be gas trapped in significant quantities to warrant exploration.

Monroeville Manager Tim Little said the municipality cannot comment on the lawsuit. Monroeville's solicitor, Robert Wratcher, did not immediately respond to a call and email seeking comment.

Dillon Carr is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 412-871-2325, or via Twitter @dillonswriting.

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