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Valley News Dispatch

Oakmont residents demand stricter gas and oil well regulations

Michael DiVittorio
| Tuesday, Oct. 9, 2018, 11:09 p.m.
Oakmont resident John Arnold encourages elected borough officials to make a proposed oil and gas well ordinance stricter at a public hearing on Tuesday, Oct. 9.
Oakmont resident John Arnold encourages elected borough officials to make a proposed oil and gas well ordinance stricter at a public hearing on Tuesday, Oct. 9.
Oakmont council chambers were packed on Tuesday, Oct. 9, for a public hearing about an oil and gas well ordinance.
Oakmont council chambers were packed on Tuesday, Oct. 9, for a public hearing about an oil and gas well ordinance.
Oakmont Solicitor Kate Diersen shows a borough map while talking about a proposed oil and gas well ordinance.
Oakmont Solicitor Kate Diersen shows a borough map while talking about a proposed oil and gas well ordinance.

Oakmont residents want stronger language, bigger setbacks and removal of a borough exclusion clause in a proposed oil and gas well ordinance.

That message, along with health concerns and a petition supporting the stricter requirements, were delivered to council at a public hearing Tuesday evening.

“As a citizen of Oakmont, I can’t imagine why council wouldn’t want to make these changes to the proposed ordinance to protect our beloved small town from every possible evil,” resident Beth Forest said.

It was standing-room-only in council chambers for the hearing. More than 50 people showed up about half went to the podium to speak.

Borough Solicitor Kate Diersen opened the hearing with a presentation about the zoning ordinance, wells in the borough and state standards.

There are 12 active wells in Oakmont, including two on borough property, according to the presentation.

Oakmont is 1.8 square miles of mostly densely-populated residential areas. Its industrial area is near the Allegheny River and light industrial is by Creek Side Park.

State regulations for wells require a 500-foot minimum setback from protected structures such as an occupied home and a 300-foot setback from the Allegheny River.

The proposed ordinance exempts borough property from zoning prohibition on conventional oil and gas wells in residential districts as well as setback requirements.

“I’m not a lawyer, but I don’t understand how the borough can grant itself more rights than its individual citizens,” resident John Arnold said. “It will probably be challenged by someone in court. We, as individuals, will pay a lawyer to challenge it, and, as taxpayers, pay lawyers to defend it.”

Residents implored council to make the setbacks 2,000 feet.

“Increasing those setbacks could possibly increase the likelihood of a lawsuit,” Diersen said.

Arnold said he was not buying that argument, and believes Oakmont would be successful if challenged in court.

Part of Diersen’s presentation said a good zoning ordinance would be “in line with the (borough’s) comprehensive plan.”

Former Councilman Tom Whalen encouraged his former colleagues to look beyond the plan, which he said does not address health and environmental issues.

“We don’t have to be limited by our current comprehensive plan,” he said. “I would have 5,000-foot setbacks.”

Verona resident Dan Jacko, who lives near Oakmont’s light industrial area, said the borough cannot focus on state minimum standards when it comes to oil and gas.

“The state is in the minimum (on well standards) in the country,” he said. “Passing the bare minimum is ineffective. It doesn’t really do anything other than lip service. We need to pass strict things so that every borough around here can pass just as strict things. It’s the equivalent of heard immunity. We need to get everyone on the same page.”

Other residents also focused on the word “minimum” and told Oakmont’s elected leaders to do more to protect their constituents.

Council voted in December to adopt a pending ordinance and sent it to the planning commission for review.

The commission has since sent a draft back to the borough for consideration. It was posted to the borough’s website and submitted to Allegheny County Economic Development Planning Manager Kay Pierce for further comments.

Council President William Benusa said council is taking the issue just as seriously as the residents.

“We’re happy to take their comments and evaluate their input,” he said after the hearing. “People are concerned about their health and safety within the community.”

Councilman Justin Lokay said he supports the citizens, and believes a 2,000-foot setback would give the borough some bargaining power.

“It would put the setbacks into neighboring municipalities,” Lokay said. “It starts a conversation. I thought the residents were smart, articulate and their points were on point. I probably agreed with 90 percent, if not more, of what they had to say.”

The planning commission’s ordinance revisions is available at bit.ly/2wc1cY6.

Residents who could not make it to the public hearing have 30 days to submit written comments to the borough office. There is no timetable for a vote on the ordinance.

Michael DiVittorio is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Michael at 412-871-2367, mdivittorio@tribweb.com or via Twitter @MikeJdiVittorio.

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