While legal precedents and court decisions keep society ticking one way or another, the very real prospect of machinery just a half-mile away, pounding a mile deep into the ground and releasing gas formed hundreds of millions of years ago, propelled Mars parents to organize.
“You have allowed for the citizens of Pennsylvania to become the collateral damage for development of shale gas. Gas wells continue to encroach on schools and densely populated areas,” the Mars Parent Group wrote to the PA General Assembly and Department of Environmental Protection in July 2014, after the auditor general released a report criticizing DEP’s oversight of the industry.
The group’s website links to several studies on human health and proximity to natural-gas development; the homepage describes the group’s bafflement with the DEP’s issuance of the permits to Rex Energy.
“We sat across the table from Rex Energy, and we requested them to move the well pad outside of a two-mile radius, because when we’ve seen in the past reasons for evacuation, it’s always been a mile or two miles,” says Patrice Tomcik, a member of the Mars Parent Group who has two children in the district. “They said that it was not feasible because they already had too much money invested in the well pad .62 miles away.”
Rex Energy did not return phone calls to confirm that statement. The publicly traded, State College-based company, which operates in Pennsylvania and Illinois, had more than 100 wells in the Butler area as of August 2014. Federal financial filings indicate the company has assets worth $1.4 billion and annual revenues of nearly $200 million.
In the case of well fires in both Greene and Mercer counties in 2014 and 2015, local news outlets reported evacuation perimeters set at a half-mile and one mile, respectively. One Chevron worker died in the Greene County blaze.
As Act 13 stands now, the buffer zone for drilling near any building — a school or not — is 500 feet from the actual wellbore, or hole, not from the perimeter of activities. The DEP would not comment on possible interpretations of building definitions because of the ongoing litigation.
According a report by the environmental-advocacy organization PennEnvironment, more than 30 schools across the Marcellus Shale region — from New York (which has banned fracking) down into Maryland — are within a half mile of wells; more than 220 schools are within one mile.
In Butler County, gas development sits anywhere from 900 feet to 2 miles from three elementary schools.
“The industry has quickly become used to demanding permit applications and getting [them] without any serious review by local government,” says George Jugovic, attorney with the Harrisburg-based PennFuture, which brought cases against municipalities in Washington and Lycoming counties, where wells were proposed near residential areas and schools. The group advocates for safe gas development.
“When a person says we have a right to develop land, that right is limited when that property is subject to local zoning. You don’t have the right to put in a dry-cleaning service [or] a steel mill. Those activities presumably get located in an industrial zoned district,” Jugovic says. “That’s the issue with shale-gas development. All indications are that it is plainly an industrial activity. How does government regulate that activity and still protect the rights of other property owners?”
The DEP is in the process of rewriting regulations for the industry, to be released in 2016, and it could apply extra scrutiny if the perimeter of a well site is planned within 200 feet of a school.
While the DEP wouldn’t talk, Jeffrey Sheridan, spokesperson for Gov. Tom Wolf, says that the administration is “committed to ensuring safety.”
But advocates say that doesn’t go far enough.
“There’s a fair amount of peer-reviewed literature of air impacts at much greater distances than what the DEP is considering,” says Nadia Steinzor of Earthworks, which is advocating for stricter regulations.
“We’re calling on DEP to prevent oil and gas infrastructure near schools,” says Matt Walker of Clean Air Council. “DEP shouldn’t let it happen within a mile.”
But David Yoxtheimer, a hydrogeologist with Penn State University’s Marcellus Center for Outreach and Research, says that as long as “everything is done properly and according to regulations,” including air- and water-quality testing, “then yes, it can be done [that close] without having any direct health impact.”
“There is another aspect here that when they are doing the drilling and fracturing, this tends to be a 24/7 operation, so you do have noise and light pollution. This is certainly where it does get tricky. You’re drilling near where people live and work,” he says.