Pennsylvania Town Votes To Allow 6 Fracking Wells Within 3,000 Feet Of School Buildings

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"Pennsylvania Town Votes To Allow 6 Fracking Wells Within 3,000 Feet Of School Buildings"

A Mars school district parent and child look at a drilling rig in Western Pennsylvania.

A Mars school district parent and child look at a drilling rig in Western Pennsylvania.

CREDIT: Mars Parent Group

MIDDLESEX, PENNSYLVANIA — If you stand beside Bob and Kim Geyer’s farm on Denny Road at 3:30 p.m. on a Wednesday, it is mostly quiet, except for the faint sounds of the local high school’s flag team band practicing in the distance.

That’s because the farm, where as many as six unconventional gas wells are waiting to be placed by Rex Energy, sits just half a mile from the Mars School District, a campus of 3,200 children. If Rex Energy’s permits for the wells are approved by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, residents say the school buildings could be within the radius of a possible explosion.

At a township public meeting Wednesday night, Rex Energy came one step closer to having those permits approved. Middlesex supervisors Michael Spreng, Donald P. Marshall, and James Evans voted unanimously to approve changes to the town’s zoning laws that would legally open up residential and agricultural lands for drilling, despite the protests of concerned parents and residents.

That zoning law change has wider implications for the town in the long run, but at the moment, it has everything to do with the schools.

“In essence, the ordinance opens up most of the township to drilling,” said John Neurohr, communications director at Keystone Progress, who also lives in a development adjacent to the well site. “But it’s pretty clear to an objective observer that the ordinance was written to make it very clear that the Geyer farm’s wells are allowed in the township.”

A map of the proposed Geyer well site in relation to the schools.

A map of the proposed Geyer well site in relation to the schools.

CREDIT: Mars parent group

Community Divide

The issue of the proposed Geyer wells has caused a palpable divide in the community between those who are worried about how fracking in the immediate proximity of their children could impact their health and welfare, and landowners who believe it is their right to do what they want with their property.

Sitting about 2,000 feet from the proposed well site on her back patio, with her five-year-old daughter on her lap, Jennifer Chomicki explained: “It’s twelve years of her life that she’ll be in that [school district] … we just don’t know enough about what it could do.”

Aside from the risk of an accident, the possible health impacts of living near a well are a large concern to Chomicki and those in the Mars Parent Group, which is mobilizing to oppose the Geyer wells. They cite the recently-observed link between proximity to natural gas wells and prevalence of congenital heart defects and neural tube defects, in addition to increased air pollution from gas leaks and truck traffic and the possibility of well water contamination.

“I’m a nurse and I have a lot of concern about what it means for the health of the girls,” Chomicki, who also has a three-year-old daughter, said. “Being this close, and reading the findings about what is linked — there’s not enough information out there yet. But there’s enough out there to be concerning, and I just don’t want it anywhere near my home.”

At the public meeting, though, residents were not uniformly in opposition to the proposed wells. Multiple people spoke out in favor of unmitigated fracking, saying the parents were making a big deal out of a small thing.

“You’re scared of drilling rigs? Well let me tell you, I’ve been on thousands of them,” one resident said. “It’s not as bad as you think.”

Kim Geyer, whose property would house the Rex Energy wells, confirmed to ThinkProgress that the ordinance was important for the project, but mostly spoke about the need for Pennsylvania to get all of its energy from within the state.

“We need energy independence in the United States,” she said. “For that to happen, people have to allow unconventional drilling.”

Asked if she had anything to say to opponents concerned about the health and safety of the children in the Mars school district, Geyer — who up until 2011 served as president of the Mars school board — said no.

“The drilling industry is well-regulated,” she said.

The issue also extends to the supervisors themselves. Though they said nothing during the meeting except their “yes” votes to the ordinance at the end, all three men were chatting amicably with the pro-drilling group before meeting took place. Town supervisors Evans and Spreng both own gas leases, Evans owning one with Rex itself.

In what initially appeared to be a positive move for the parent community, town solicitor Mike Hnath officially deemed those leases a conflict of interest, and ordered that both Evans and Spreng abstain from voting.

However, in a truly Monty Python-like twist, Hnath then said that because a majority could not be reached with just the remaining supervisor, Evans and Spreng were allowed to vote. All three supervisors declined ThinkProgress’ request for comment following the meeting.

Close Ties With Corbett

Conflict of interest or not, the Middlesex township supervisor’s decision to approve the zoning ordinance effectively puts the permits in the state Department of Environmental Protection’s hands. That’s a controversial notion among residents, as some believe the DEP under current Gov. Tom Corbett (R) has done a dismal job protecting residents from harmful impacts of fracking.

“The DEP is not going to protect us,” said Kathleen Wagner, whose Denny Road home would be 300 feet from the well site.

Indeed, a recent report from the state Department of Environmental Protection’s auditor found that the agency had failed to adequately protect Pennsylvania’s drinking water supply from drilling. It also said the DEP routinely waited too long to inform the public about the results of investigations during the height of the fracking expansion.

A DEP representative did not immediately return ThinkProgress’ request for comment on what the next steps would be for the Geyer well site. A look at recent campaign contributions, however, shows Rex Energy has close ties to the current administration. Lance T. Shaner, former Rex Energy CEO and current Chairman of the company, is currently the ninth largest donor to Corbett’s re-election campaign. Shaner also contributed $155,550 to Corbett’s gubernatorial campaign in 2010.

It’s not just Corbett, either — Shaner’s reach spans the entire Republican Party. The Republican Party of Pennsylvania’s headquarters is actually called The Shaner Republican Center, named after the Rex CEO for his large contributions.

“As we head towards November and are just months away from securing major Republican wins for our candidates Pat Toomey, Tom Corbett and countless other Republicans up and down the ballot, I am honored that The Shaner Republican Center will serve as the foundations to those critical victories,” he said in 2010.

At the time of Shaner’s first $100,000 donation in 2010, the company had budgeted $66 million to drill natural-gas wells over 60,000 acres in four counties, according to the state Department of Environmental Protection. In Middlesex, Rex Energy already has 8,300 acres of land leased for drilling.

The company had even tried to get the school to participate in the drilling process, offering the school board $1 million if they agreed to lease their underground land for horizontal drilling. But in March, the Mars Area School board rejected the lease offer.

Rex Energy said in a statement that it was disappointed by the vote, and that it respected the board’s decision. But company representative Michael Endler said it plans to continue their drilling plans near the school regardless.

“If they choose not to participate, that’s unfortunate,” he said. “But we will be moving forward with the project without them.”

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