Some major parts of Pennsylvania’s two-year-old Marcellus Shale drilling law are unconstitutional, the state’s Supreme Court decided Thursday.
As the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reports, the court voted 4–2 that a provision that allowing natural gas companies to drill anywhere, regardless of local zoning laws, was unconstitutional. Seven municipalities had challenged the shale drilling law, known as Act 13, that required “drilling, waste pits and pipelines be allowed in every zoning district, including residential districts, as long as certain buffers are observed.”
The Court said Act 13 “fundamentally disrupted” the expectations of Pennsylvania residents living in residential zones, and that the provision wasn’t in line with Pennsylvania’s constitution or Environmental Rights Amendment, which guarantees Pennsylvanians the “right to clean air, pure water, and to the preservation of the natural, scenic, historic and esthetic values of the environment.”
“To describe this case simply as a zoning or agency discretion matter would not capture the essence of the parties’ fundamental dispute regarding Act 13,” the ruling read. “Rather, at its core, this dispute centers upon an asserted vindiction of citizens’ rights to quality of life on their properties and in their hometowns, insofar as Act 13 threatens degradation of air and water, and of natural, scenic and esthetic values of the environment, with attendant effects on health, safety and the owners’ continued enjoyment of their private property.”
Representatives of the townships that challenged Act 13 praised the court’s decision.
“Preserving zoning is vital to local planning efforts, in order to keep industrial activity out of residential and commercial areas,” Deron Gabriel, commission president in South Fayette, told the Post-Gazette. “Now we can keep industrial activities away from our school and residences, and there’s been more and more of a push by the industry to locate closer to the residential areas.”
In addition, challenges by Pennsylvania citizens and townships on provisions in the law that prohibit doctors from telling patients about health impacts related to fracking chemicals were sent back to Commonwealth Court for reevaluation. The “physician gag order” (or “frack gag”) was recently challenged by a doctor who claimed it infringed on his First Amendment rights and his duties as a doctor, but his challenge was thrown out by a Pennsylvania court in October. The Supreme Court’s decision to send the Commonwealth Court’s decision back down for re-evaluation spells trouble for the gag order. Doctors have expressed concern over this rule in Pennsylvania and what it means for their patients — a report from Pennsylvania documented a range of health problems affecting residents living near natural gas operations, including skin rashes, headaches and chronic pain.