JAMES CITY, Pa. - Highland Township's rebellion against the fossil-fuel state began more three years ago, when word spread that Seneca Resources Corp. wanted to convert a depleted natural-gas well into a site for disposing of wastewater from Marcellus Shale drilling operations.
Marsha Buhl, who had some unpleasant experiences 40 years ago living near oil wells in northwestern Pennsylvania, feared the proposed injection well would pollute the town's drinking-water supply with fracking waste. She organized residents in opposition.
"Nobody watches out for the little guys," Buhl said. "It's the little guys who are getting stomped on, and I'm tired of it."
The township supervisors in this Elk County community, population 492, approved a ban on injection wells in 2013.
Seneca sued the township in federal court last year, saying its plans were approved by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which administers injection wells in Pennsylvania under the Safe Drinking Water Act. Seneca alleged that the local ban violated its constitutional rights.
As the case moves forward in U.S. District Court in Erie, the town shows no sign of backing down.
Voters in Highland Township will consider a measure Tuesday to create a home-rule charter commission, to set up an autonomous local government. The activists hope it will give them another tool to fight the gas industry, though state and federal laws will still prevail.
"We're not doing this for glory," Buhl said. "We're doing this to save our community and save the environment."
The Highland Township clash is typical of legal skirmishes that are taking place over oil- and gas-industry installations across the nation, including well sites, pipelines, compressor stations, and waste-disposal facilities. In states such as Pennsylvania, the industry traditionally has enjoyed legal protections aimed at encouraging domestic energy development over local concerns.
Underlying the discontent in Highland is a deep mistrust of corporations and government, a sentiment with echoes in this year's presidential primary.
"I just don't have a good feeling about what's happening in this country," said Cliff Stump of nearby Ridgway, who has joined the Highland Township effort.
The legal advocate leading the township's fight likens the effort to the civil rights movement, in which activists clashed over voting rules and bus seating although a larger issue was at stake.
"I think there's an understanding that something bigger is happening," said Thomas Linzey, executive director of the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund, based in Mercersburg.
"What you're seeing here is a much more developed, evolved form of civil disobedience," he said. "It's collective disobedience, community disobedience. It's actually communities using their laws to break the legal doctrines that have been imposed upon them by what some people call the corporate state."
Linzey's organization, CELDF, has encouraged municipalities to enact "community environmental bill of rights" ordinances, which include the novel feature of recognizing the ecosystem as a legal entity with the same rights as a person.
It's a concept that has not met with resounding courtroom success, though as Linzey says, "In a lot of these battles, we have to redefine what is success."
Industry supporters say Highland's efforts are quixotic, and could threaten the town with bankruptcy.
Highland is following a path set by Grant Township, a rural municipality in Indiana County, which also voted to ban injection wells. Pennsylvania General Energy Co., which secured EPA approval to build a wastewater well in Grant Township, challenged the township and won in federal court, before the same magistrate who is hearing the Highland Township case.
PGE is now awaiting a jury trial on its claims for $350,000 in damages and legal fees against Grant Township. An award could potentially exceed the town's annual budget of about $250,000.
In November, voters in Grant Township approved a home-rule charter, drafted with CELDF's help, that recognizes the "ecosystem or natural community" as a "real party in interest."
It may take a municipal bankruptcy to crystallize the issue, Linzey said.
"If it does reach bankruptcy or whatever else happens in the future, then it does have the effect of pulling the veil away from people's eyes about how the system actually works, and that's valuable," he said.
Industries have long used wells to inject wastewater into deep rock, where the liquid is contained in a porous formation surrounded by impermeable rock. The injection zones are separated by thousands of feet from aquifers containing drinking water.
The growth of the shale-gas industry and hydraulic fracturing has dramatically increased the need for injection wells to dispose of drilling brine. Oil and gas drillers say the wastewater originated from deep rock formations contains salts, heavy metals, and some naturally occurring radioactive material.
The proliferation of injection wells has been linked to outbreaks of earthquakes in Oklahoma and other oil-producing areas. Youngstown, Ohio, endured a series of earthquakes in recent years that ended after several wells were shut down. Not all injection wells are implicated in the induced seismic activity, but the earthquakes have shaken the confidence of many residents in regulators' ability to properly site the facilities.
The EPA has permitted about 1,860 Class 2 injection wells in Pennsylvania, though most are used not for waste disposal but to stimulate production from oil and gas fields. Less than 10 wells are approved for oil- and gas-waste disposal.
Because of the shortage of injection wells in Pennsylvania, drillers recycled much of their wastewater in new fracking operations. But some waste still needs to be disposed of, and much of it is trucked to injection wells in Ohio and West Virginia.
Seneca, which says it spends $5,000 a truck to send waste to Ohio, was eager to develop its own injection well. Its engineers studied more than 700,000 acres of its oil and gas properties in northwestern Pennsylvania before identifying the best location as the Elk 3 sandstone formation beneath Highland Township, now depleted after 30 years of gas production.
The Elk 3 lies 2,500 feet below the surface, far beneath drinking-water supplies. The injection-well location is more than a half-mile from James City's water supply.
Opponents flooded the EPA with objections. "In the end, the EPA still approved the project," said Rob Boulware, Seneca's spokesman.
Boulware said Seneca intends to vigorously fight in court.
"We are going to defend our property rights like any other property owner would," he said. "That means defending our rights under the state and federal constitutions."