A group of concerned Pennsylvania parents have launched a legal challenge against their town council’s recent decision to allow five horizontal gas wells about a half mile from the Mars School District, a campus of 3,200 children.
The four parents, joined by the environmental groups Delaware Riverkeeper Network and Clean Air Council, contend that the Middlesex Township Board of Supervisors violated Pennsylvania’s state Constitution when it voted to change the township’s zoning laws back in August. Those changes legally opened up Middlesex’s residential and agricultural lands for potential drilling, despite the protests of parents and residents concerned about air pollution, water contamination, and noise.
The zoning law change has wide implications for drilling and fracking in Middlesex, but the main reason for the change was to pave the way for the proposed gas wells near the school. The Geyer well site would be placed on farmland owned by Middlesex residents Bob and Kim Geyer, and operated by a company called Rex Energy. The wells would be about 3,000 feet from all of the school district’s buildings, a youth homeless center, and just 800 feet from a residential community where many of the schoolkids live.
Jennifer Chomicki, a party to the lawsuit and a mother of two young daughters who will attend the Mars school district, told ThinkProgress about her concerns with the Geyer well site in August.
“I definitely wouldn’t have moved here if I had known there would be a well pad 1,200 feet from our home,” she said at the time. Watch more of Chomicki’s comments to ThinkProgress below:
The lawsuit, filed Monday before the Middlesex Township’s Zoning Hearing Board, hones in on Chomicki’s concern. “None of the citizens ever expected that moving into a residential and agricultural area near a school campus and so many homes would mean they would be living next to an industrial site, or even in a Township that has been approved for conversion into an industrial zone,” the lawsuit reads.
Monday’s lawsuit challenges the constitutionality of the zoning ordinance, which essentially allows drilling and fracking to take place anywhere in the Township. Maya van Rossum of the Delaware Riverkeeper told ThinkProgress that the ordinance is just like the zoning portions of Act 13, Pennsylvania’s oil and gas drilling law, which were found unconstitutional by the state Supreme Court.
“When the court struck down Act 13, one of the things it said is that Act 13 failed to take into consideration the individual qualities of various parts of the community,” van Rossum explained. “It treated the whole state as if it was all the same. Like no matter where drilling happened, the implications were equal for all involved. And that’s not true.”
If the zoning ordinance is deemed unconstitutional, it will effectively invalidate the permits Rex Energy received from the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection just a few weeks after the ordinance was passed. Parents in Mars had urged the state DEP not to issue the permits, but in a letter in response to those concerns, the DEP said it had “no legal right” to deny the permits, noting that state regulations only forbid drilling and fracking within 500 feet of a school.
Still, parents are concerned about the health of their kids. Chomicki told ThinkProgress back in August that she wasn’t sure how well her daughters would fare spending 12 years of their developing lives in a school so close to natural gas development.
“I’m a nurse and I have a lot of concern about what it means for the health of the girls,” Chomicki, whose daughters are three and five years old, 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.”
While research into the long-term health effects of fracking is still in preliminary stages, scientists have observed a link between proximity to natural gas wells and prevalence of congenital heart defects and neural tube defects. A recent study from Yale University found that people living close to natural gas wells in southwestern Pennsylvania are more than twice as likely to report respiratory illnesses and skin problems than those living farther away.
Van Rossum says these are the reasons why communities like Middlesex need more protection from the risks of drilling than other, more rural areas.
“When people came to this community, they thought they were buying in a residential community, not an industrial zone,” she said. “These are things the government needs to take into consideration when rendering their decision.”