Company Halts Plan To Frack 3,000 Feet From Pennsylvania School

CREDIT: Mars Parent Group

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

A company’s plan to frack for natural gas about a half mile from a Pennsylvania school district of 3,200 kids has been suspended, just weeks after a group of concerned parents and environmentalists launched a legal challenge against the project.

Rex Energy announced last week that it would stop preparing to drill on the farm of Bob and Kim Geyer in Middlesex, Pennsylvania — a property located about 3,000 feet from the Mars School District. The reason, Rex told the Butler Eagle, was a lawsuit brought in October by local families and environmental groups Delaware Riverkeeper Network and Clean Air Council.

“We’re happy that [Rex has] been able to suspend operations and we can continue the conversation to try and protect the children,” Amy Nassif, who heads the Mars Parent Group, told ThinkProgress on Monday. “This isn’t just about the Geyer’s site — it’s about anybody that wants to develop, and the state government needs to realize that they need to stop putting children in harm’s way in order to continue to develop shale.”

The lawsuit commenced last month argued that the Middlesex Township Board of Supervisors violated Pennsylvania’s state Constitution when it voted to change the township’s zoning law back in August. Those changes legally opened up most of the rural town of Middlesex for fracking, even on residential lands.

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.

Kim Geyer, whose property would house the Rex Energy wells, told ThinkProgress in August that the ordinance was important for the project, and said she was not concerned that it would affect the health and safety of the children in the Mars school district.

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

Geyer told the Butler Eagle last week that the lawsuit was just an example of environmental groups trying to “use” Middlesex as a platform for their political agenda.

“These people are not coming here because they care about Middlesex Township,” Geyer, who up until 2011 served as president of the Mars school board, reportedly said. “They want to justify their existence and make a name for themselves by setting a statewide precedent.”

But environmental groups insist their lawsuit has a different purpose — protecting the health and safety of the 3,200 children who attend school at the Mars School District. 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.

“This well well site is entirely too close to the school district,” Nassif said. “It puts children within a 2-mile evacuation zone, and if they continue work at that site, it puts them within the area where they can experience health effects.”

Rex’s halt on work at the Geyer site is temporary, pending hearings on the zoning rule which are set to begin on Tuesday. Nassif said the hearings will likely mean a halt on the project until at least December. She said Rex has already completed construction of its well pad on the farm and created access roads for trucks, though there is not yet any equipment or drilling rigs on the site.

Geyer has accused the parents and environmental groups of attempting to drag out the process in the hopes that Rex Energy will become tired of spending money on legal fighting and walk away from the project. That’s at least one thing that Nassif can agree with.

“If [the legal proceedings] cost the company money, well that’s the price that you pay for trying to to do business so close to a school district,” she said. “You need to realize you can’t set up an industrial process this close to the school.”