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Controversy abounds over new Pennsylvania drilling law

Natural gas drilling near homes, wastewater pits near schools, and pipelines running through parks are all allowed under the controversial Marcellus Shale drilling law that took effect Monday.

Natural gas drilling near homes, wastewater pits near schools, and pipelines running through parks are all allowed under the controversial Marcellus Shale drilling law that took effect Monday.

Communities will have little control over such operations, opponents say, because the Pennsylvania law trumps local ordinances that limit where they can be put.

Proponents say Act 13 ensures that drillers get equal treatment; opponents say it provides them with special treatment.

The provision of the law that supersedes local zoning laws "is an assault on an important democratic principal - the right to self governing," says Karl Schwartz, director of the Gallows Run Watershed Association.

"The law takes away zoning from everyone completely - every township, borough, and citizen in Bucks County" and across the state, Nockamixon Township Supervisor Nancy Alessi said.

Alessi joined Schwartz and representatives of several other environmental groups Thursday to voice their displeasure with the law before an informational session conducted by state officials at Palisades High School. About 275 residents packed the cafeteria, with several challenging the speakers with shouts of, "What about our property value?" and, "What about our water?"

Act 13 was enacted to collect impact fees from drilling companies tapping the vast gas supplies in the Marcellus Shale region. Pennsylvania had been the only major gas-producing state that did not tax natural gas production, and it is projected to collect $175 million this year.

"Towns where there is drilling are thrilled by this windfall - it's like manna from heaven," Morrisville Borough Councilwoman Nancy Sherlock said in a recent interview. "But the impact on waterways and the environment is long-term and statewide. I have a strong sense they are going to be harmed" by the law.

The law is aimed at "unconventional drilling" in the Marcellus Shale, which lies beneath most of northern and Western Pennsylvania. It was never meant to cover drilling outside the Marcellus region, State Rep. Brian Ellis (R., Butler), a cosponsor of the bill that passed along party lines, told the audience.

Ellis backed up four Republican legislators from Bucks County - Sen. Chuck McIlhenny, Sen. Bob Mensch, Rep. Paul Clymer, and Rep. Marguerite Quinn - who said they had been assured the law does not affect Bucks towns.

McIlhenny pledged to "clarify" the law by the end of the legislative session in June.

"Your ordinances will remain in effect," McIlhenny said.

The law allows drilling within 500 feet of buildings and water wells; within 300 feet of springs, rivers, and wetlands larger than an acre; and within 1,000 feet of sources of public drinking water. Compressor stations can operate in agricultural and industrial districts, and processing plants are allowed in industrial zones.

That's an improvement from the previous law, supporters say.

But it requires towns to allow drilling in all zoning districts, opponents say. And it requires towns to amend their zoning laws within 120 days to comply with Act 13 or lose any impact fees.

Act 13 "makes it impossible for municipal officials to fulfill their obligations and protect the water supplies, the environment, and human health," said Tracy Carluccio, deputy director of the Delaware Riverkeeper Network.

The environmental group and seven municipalities, including Nockamixon and Yardley, challenged the law last month, and a Commonwealth Court judge on Wednesday granted a 120-day halt to the provisions overriding local ordinances.

Senior Judge Keith Quigley said he was "not convinced that petitioners' likelihood of success on the merits is high."

A Commonwealth Court hearing was scheduled for Tuesday on a request from gas industry representatives to intervene in the lawsuit.

Nockamixon is especially sensitive to the prospect of natural-gas drilling because of a permit request submitted to the state Department of Environmental Protection by Turm Oil.

A ruling on that permit, filed under the old law, is expected next week. But the area is under a drilling moratorium issued by the Delaware River Basin Commission.

Act 13 "was not [enacted] for Turm Oil to come into Nockamixon and drill carte blanche," McIlhenny said.

About 300 gas leases also have been signed in Nockamixon and the neighboring townships of Springfield, Haycock, and Tinicum, primarily in residential zones. Nockamixon's laws restrict drilling to industrial zones.

"Every local government is different, every place is different, and that difference is reflected in their zoning," Nockamixon's Alessi said. "Now that's all gone."

The Pennsylvania State Association of Township Supervisors endorsed the final bill after helping to reach a compromise that retained "most local authority," assistant executive director Elam Herr said.

The law is aimed at unreasonable local ordinances that ban drilling or that set requirements that could not be met, or that are more restrictive than state standards, Herr said.

"There are ordinances that say the noise level cannot be more than 10 decibels during the day or 5 decibels at night," Herr said. "The normal level is 60 decibels - a cricket makes more than 5 decibels."

Another educational forum is scheduled for 7 to 10 p.m. Thursday at Palisades High School, sponsored by the Gallows Run Watershed Association.

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