Pa. Township gets ready to enact zoning

By jeanne starmack

ellwood city, pa.

After four years in the making, Wayne Township near Ellwood City, Pa., is getting ready to enact zoning.

That may or may not affect shale gas-well drilling. The head of the township’s planning commission said drilling will be addressed as the ordinance is drafted. But the state Supreme Court is deciding whether to allow the state to take away local municipalities’ rights to regulate where drilling occurs.

Act 13, passed last February, took away that right. Under the act, companies can drill even in residential areas. Several communities sued, and the Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court struck that part of the law. The state appealed to the high court, and arguments were heard in October.

Residents of mostly rural Wayne Township will be asked to attend three public hearings sometime after Jan. 1, said Tootie Welsh, head of the township planning commission. Welsh was instrumental in the push for zoning, she said, after a privately run halfway house for paroled prisoners was almost built next to her residence on Ellwood-Wampum Road four years ago.

“This was 200 parolees and not a lock-down,” she said Friday. “They were supposed to go into the community to get jobs,” she said, adding that after a lot of media coverage and a bombardment of letters to the state, the halfway house was not built.

The department of corrections decided not to place parolees “where they weren’t wanted,” she said.

Welsh said that other small townships in the area also “came on board” to enact zoning.

Zoning is the only way, she said, to keep out undesirable businesses such as adult bookstores.

The township is working with Lawrence County’s planning department, she said, to develop the zoning.

“We are going to stay mostly rural,” she said.

The ordinance is almost finished, she said, and with the advance of drilling for natural gas in the Marcellus Shale under western Pennsylvania, it likely will address wells.

“We haven’t finished our final draft,” she said. “We had 80 percent of it done; then the gas wells came.”

Landowners who have leased mineral rights to the gas company doing most of the development in the area, Shell Western Exploration and Production, are happy about the drilling, said Welsh and Bruce Badger, a township supervisor.

Environmentalists and activists have sounded the alarm, however, over the method used to drill in the shale, which is several thousand feet underground. That method is called hydraulic fracturing, or fracking.

After a vertical well is drilled, horizontal drills bore through the shale for up to a mile. Then, fluid is pumped into the shale at high pressure to crack it and release the gas.

The fluid is made up of water, sand and chemicals that have included toxins.

As wells have been drilled throughout the state, companies have accumulated hundreds of state Department of Environmental Protection violations that have included citations for contaminating well water with methane gas migration, fracking-fluid leaks into surface water and a Chesapeake Energy well blowout in Bradford County in 2011 that spewed fracking fluid into fields and a nearby creek. Residents near wells have complained that their well water was undrinkable or diminished after the wells moved in.

Of Lawrence County’s 250,000 acres, Welsh said, Shell has leased 180,000.

She said she believes the company will be concerned “about the footprint they leave.”

Badger said he believes groundwater contamination is a concern, noting that the small town of Chewton still uses wells for drinking water.

“A place like Chewton would become a ghost town,” he said.

Badger said, though, that township officials don’t want to keep people with leases from making money.

“It looks fantastic for us,” he said.

He said that renters rather than landowners seem to be less in favor of drilling.

The supervisors will have the final say over zoning enactment.

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