Two miles. One mile. A half mile. A local watchdog organization counted the number of fracking wells within these distances of schools, day-care centers, nursing homes and hospitals in Pennsylvania. The final tally: hundreds. Now parents are speaking out, and lawsuits are pending.
“Drilling is an extremely industrial process,” says Stephen Riccardi, of PennEnvironment, the organization that released the report, entitled “Dangerous and Close,” last week. “Having all of this going on so close to a school seems practically crazy.”
The report found that, in Pennsylvania, there are 166 schools, 165 day cares, 21 nursing homes and six hospitals within one mile of permitted unconventional natural-gas drilling, or fracking, well sites. (The report’s parameters included not only the actual hydraulic fracturing process, but also activities like construction and processing.)
Within a two-mile radius, the number of schools and day cares reaches nearly 500 each. PennEnvironment, along with several other environmental groups, community members and parents are calling on the state to enact stricter laws.
“We’re advocating a one-mile minimum setback of all gas development, not just well pads, from schools, because this helps with the safety aspect as well as the health impacts for children,” says Patrice Tomcik, of the group Moms Clean Air Force. She has two children in the Mars Area School District, in Butler County’s Middlesex Township, which loosened zoning rules to allow drilling in 90 percent of the town. A fracking site sits a little more than a half-mile from the school’s campus.
Environmental groups and residents sued the township over the new zoning, and they’re awaiting a Nov. 6 hearing. For now, activities at the well pad have been suspended; a Butler County Common Pleas Court judge issued a stay this past summer.
A 2013 state Supreme Court decision on parts of Act 13, a state law governing extraction, handed zoning power regarding oil and gas development back to municipalities. (Prior to that, the state superseded municipalities.)
“That’s why this fight has become so local, township by township,” says Aaron Jacobs-Smith, an attorney for the Clean Air Council, one of the parties that sued Middlesex. “Some [towns] are trying to take a more protective approach. The hope with Middlesex is to establish this principle that you can’t put an industrial activity everywhere. It’s not fair to your citizens.”
One of the most blatant instances is in Summit Township, where a well pad is operating just 700 feet from Summit Elementary school in Butler County. State records show that in 2013, XTO Energy, the well operator, was cited for two violations, one for not properly storing waste and the other for discharging waste without a permit.
Statewide, PennEnvironment found more than 220 violations at wells within one mile of a school, 180 violations within one mile of day cares, 28 within one mile of nursing homes and 13 within one mile of hospitals.
The report cites studies regarding proximity to fracking activities and impacts on air, water and quality of life.
“All the research indicates proximity being a concern as it relates to health symptoms and health outcomes,” says Raina Rippel, director of the Southwest Pennsylvania Environmental Health Project, which investigates health symptoms in residents near fracking. “We see increasing concern related to prenatal exposures for pregnant women.”
Rippel refers to studies cited by the PennEnvironment report, published this year and exploring the relationship between how close pregnant mothers lived to fracking sites and low birthweights. While researchers say the association doesn’t prove that fracking causes low birth rates, they say it’s concerning and warrants more in-depth research.
“We don’t think it can be safely done anywhere near any population, especially vulnerable ones such as children and the elderly,” says Diane Sipe, of the advocacy group Marcellus Outreach Butler. Her organization tracks well sites in Butler County and distributes Google Earth images of their proximities to schools. “We are dashing headlong with this process when we don’t even know the full extent of the ramifications.”
As to stronger limits on fracking, PennEnvironment and other advocacy organizations say that although a one-mile setback is not ideal, it’s a starting point.
“It offers a reasonable degree of protection,” Riccardi says. “It’s still not perfect. Obviously, PennEnvironment would love to see an infinite setback. A mile is what we would call the baseline of safe.”
Moms Clean Air Force’s Tomcik says that at least for emergency safety, a one-mile setback “may prevent disruptive evacuations” in the event of an explosion or other emergency situation.
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.
“Myself and other colleagues from other health and environmental organizations support the one-mile minimum setback knowing that it is not fully protective of children’s health. Unfortunately, until the health of children is prioritized over the profits of polluters, Pennsylvania parents have to operate within the current political climate,” says Tomcik.
A spokesperson for the Marcellus Shale Coalition, the group representing the state’s oil and gas industry, calls the report the “latest attempt ... to spread fear and misinformation about safe and tightly-regulated shale development.”
For parents who hope that state law will catch up with their concerns, the process is long and complicated.
Since 2007, the department has granted nearly 20,000 fracking permits. Last week, the DEP granted a permit for a Rex Energy site about a half-mile from Dassa McKinney Elementary School, in Concord Township, Butler County.
“DEP does not have the legal authority to implement setbacks more stringent than those established for buildings in Act 13,” DEP press secretary Neil Shader told City Paper.
Act 13’s current setback from structures “within which persons live or customarily work” — such as schools and nursing homes — is 500 feet. That is measured from the well bore, or actual hole in the ground. Activity around a well can extend to several acres, not counting extensive truck traffic.
Under Gov. Tom Wolf, the Department of Environmental Protection has been working to tighten permitting, including protecting public recreation areas and strengthening regulations on open-air waste impoundments. The Wolf administration held 12 public hearings and received more than 30,000 comments regarding the proposed permitting changes.
The new permitting stipulations are expected to come into effect next year, and address in part “public resources” like playgrounds and schools. Under the proposed rules, if the perimeter of a drilling area is to be located less than 200 feet from a public resource, the driller must notify a school district, and DEP would then be responsible for setting safety conditions on the project.
“Unfortunately, [the new rule is] really not a setback,” says Jacobs-Smith. “It doesn’t stop [drilling]. It just triggers this extra layer of review.”
Jacobs-Smith’s organization recently appealed other DEP drilling permits granted in close proximity to schools with the state’s Environmental Hearing Board, which hears appeals of DEP decisions.
“We’re saying, ‘Look, DEP, you have the authority and an obligation to protect the community,’” Jacobs-Smith says. “You should be looking at the local community in which this drilling is going to be taking place, and the fact that there’s a school a half-mile away. That should matter.”