INQUIRER HARRISBURG BUREAU
HARRISBURG - Talk about your David-and-Goliath standoffs in Marcellus Shale country.
A tiny township's pleas for help with road repairs didn't seem to be getting through to a giant gas- drilling company. Neither did efforts to keep company trucks off a fast-eroding gravel road. So a local official took matters into his own hands - literally.
Cogan House Township Supervisor Daniel Roupp, a retired logger, grabbed his chainsaw Tuesday and started knocking down trees to block the road.
The company, Range Resources, says it has tried to cooperate and didn't want trees felled. But one thing is for certain: a $12-an-hour township supervisor got the attention of a $10 billion company.
"These guys were just trying to run over the top of us," said Roupp.
Dubbed the "King of Marcellus Shale" by Fortune, Texas-based Range operates about 500 wells in Pennsylvania and employs 850 people - almost as many as populate Cogan House, a Lycoming County municipality with an annual budget of $100,000.
A rural crossroads of about 1,000 residents, the township - named for the first settler to build a log cabin there, in 1825 - is set amid forests and game lands in north-central Pennsylvania. Per capita income is just $15,000. A forlorn announcement on the township website says the Old Time Country Fair - an heir to the old Birch Stills Festival, named for liquor "stills" that once supplemented farmers' and lumbermen's pay - is being canceled this year for lack of volunteers.
Range, which has been drilling in Pennsylvania for 30 years and in Cogan House since about 2006, says it recently revived operations there as the economy began picking up.
Access to three drill rigs is along Buckhorn Road, 26 miles northwest of Williamsport, where rainwater runoff flows into several environmentally sensitive streams.
Before drilling began in April, the road led only to hunting camps and drew no more than 10 vehicles daily. Today, it gets as many as 200 tractor-trailers hauling sand and heavy equipment during peak drilling.
Roupp said the township, which is charged with maintaining the road and is liable for environmental damage caused by its degradation, had been asking Range to repair the road for nine months, as record rainfalls caused further deterioration.
"They kept saying, 'We'll get to it,' " Roupp said Thursday in a telephone interview.
Truck damage to roads has been a hallmark of the Marcellus Shale boom. Range and other drillers have helped many municipalities with repair costs, an issue that has also loomed large in the legislative debate over imposing an impact fee on drillers.
The issue came to a head in Cogan House on Dec. 15 when the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) told the township it was violating erosion and sediment regulations, and ordered officials to ban vehicles weighing more than six tons from the road.
Roupp said the township tried to comply by banning big trucks, erecting signs, and setting up barricades. But truck drivers ignored those obstacles and even ran over some of them, he said.
So the township pulled the permits that allowed the heavy trucks to use the road.
Roupp said Range officials said the trucks were going to keep using the road. That, he said, left him believing he had no choice but to cut down trees. So he got out his chainsaw and cut down six, letting them fall across the road.
"Let's put it this way," Roupp said. "They called us out on the street for a gunfight, and we were ready."
Range spokesman Matt Pitzarella said Thursday that he did not understand Roupp's actions, because company and township officials had met before the tree-cutting. But he said there was some confusion over what was required of Range.
"The supervisors and the DEP were all telling us different things," Pitzarella said.
Roupp said he hoped to resolve things at a meeting Friday with DEP and Range officials and to ensure that the township is no longer responsible for environmental violations.
DEP spokesman Daniel Spadoni said: "Since the order was issued, DEP has been working with the township and Range Resources to have the road properly repaired in a timely manner so that these waterways are protected." Spadoni said it was too soon to determine whether any further enforcement action would follow.
Roupp said that since the tree-cutting, Range had begun work to stop the erosion and sedimentation runoff into the nearby stream. Range's Pitzarella said the start of work on rebuilding the roadbed would depend on crew availability and weather.
As for the felled trees, Roupp said they had been removed and will soon be firewood for a nearby gun club.
The issue isn't the drilling, Roupp said. He said he and other Cogan House residents are "100 percent pro-gas" and don't want to see Range break its bank fixing roads.
"We just need to have it done right," he said. "You can't just pillage the land and pollute the streams."