PA Supreme Court Hands Victory to Community Fighting Oil and Gas Drilling

Court Rules Jefferson Hills Council Was Right to Listen to Neighbors Concerned about Air Pollution, Traffic, and Heath Impacts

Pittsburgh — The Supreme Court of Pennsylvania on Friday granted a major victory to a community south of Pittsburgh that has been fighting a natural gas drilling project that many local residents fear will harm air quality and public health.

The court issued an opinion that sided with the Borough of Jefferson Hills, about 12 miles south of Pittsburgh in Allegheny County, in denying a permit to a hydraulic fracturing and drilling operation by the EQT oil and gas company.

“This is a precedent-setting ruling that has far-reaching implications for communities throughout Pennsylvania,” said Lisa Graves Marcucci, community outreach coordinator for the Environmental Integrity Project. “This ruling by our state Supreme Court underscores local governments’ role in protecting public health, safety and welfare as a key factor in accepting or denying an application for an oil and gas operation.”

In 2015, EQT proposed construction of an unconventional shale gas well pad that would include 16 wells. The project would have been the first oil and gas facility in that densely populated suburban area, and local residents complained at a public hearing about pollution, truck traffic, and the impact on their health and property values.

A key part of the citizens’ objections was testimony by residents of nearby Union Township, who gave first-hand testimony about the harm that drilling by the same company had caused to their quality of life in an earlier project.

In the weeks following the public hearing, the Jefferson Hills Borough Council denied EQT a conditional use permit to build the well pad.  EQT then appealed the borough decision, arguing that the testimony by the Union Township residents was “speculative.”  The county and state courts sided with EQT.

The PA Supreme Court on Friday, however, struck down the lower court’s decision, ruling that the citizen testimony presented to Jefferson Hills Borough Council was relevant and that the council was correct in its decision to deny the permit. This means that case will be sent back for a review and hearing by the state court.

The Supreme Court wrote: “The testimony of the Union Township objectors as to the foul stenches, intense vibrations, loud and penetrating sounds, and increased levels of traffic and air and light pollution they continuously endured, in and around their homes, was both relevant and probative in establishing the potential adverse impacts which Jefferson Borough residents … reasonably could expect.”

During the arguments before the Supreme Court, John Smith, special counsel for Jefferson Hills, effectively argued the testimony of the Union Township community members was relevant because they were describing the actions of the same company, with a similar operation, in a community in close proximity to Jefferson Hills.

For a copy of the decision, visit: http://www.environmentalintegrity.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/06/PA-supreme-court-decision.pdf

The Environmental Integrity Project is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization based in Washington, D.C., and Austin, Texas, that protects public health and the environment by investigating polluters, holding them accountable under the law, and strengthening public policy

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Media contact: Tom Pelton, Environmental Integrity Project, (202) 888-2703 or tpelton@environmentalintegrity.org