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Rural Issues

This rural township wants to make it easier for other places in Pa. to fight injection wells

by Marley Parish of Spotlight PA State College |

The Rachel Carson State Office Building in Harrisburg, which houses the PA Department of Environmental Protection.
Sarah Anne Hughes / Spotlight PA

This story was produced by the State College regional bureau of Spotlight PA, an independent, nonpartisan newsroom dedicated to investigative and public-service journalism for Pennsylvania. Sign up for our regional newsletter, Talk of the Town.

BELLEFONTE — An oil and gas company recently withdrew its application to inject liquids deep underground in rural Clara Township, a win for officials and residents who feared groundwater pollution and health risks.

The experience with the state agency responsible for approving or rejecting such applications has left locals pushing for changes to the process.

Supervisors Steven Mehl and Robert Wylie represent the roughly 120 residents of Clara Township, located in Potter County. They told Spotlight PA they didn’t learn about the proposed well from the company as required, and had to push the state Department of Environmental Protection to hold a public meeting, as that’s not mandatory.

Mehl and Wylie also believe the township — which employs only four part-time employees, according to Mehl — and its residents didn’t have enough time to learn about the application and respond.

That’s why they took matters into their own hands by petitioning county officials, asking for help from state lawmakers, and repeatedly requesting that the DEP reject the application.

It was “an incredible amount of work and a lot of sleepless nights,” Mehl told Spotlight PA.

“The process is broken,” he added.

Gaps in a public process

The oil and gas industry uses injection wells to dispose of fluid created during the production process, storing it deep underground. The waste contains salts, chemicals, and metals, and can be toxic to humans and the environment.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency regulates hundreds of thousands of underground injection wells nationwide. Pennsylvania — which has 19 such wells, per the EPA — has relied on Ohio’s more than 200 injection wells to dispose of waste.

The oil and gas industry says there are safeguards in place to protect the environment and prevent water pollution. But residents nationwide, including in Pennsylvania, have pushed back against injection wells coming into their communities, citing health concerns and risks of contaminated water.

Hannah Wiseman, a Penn State law professor, told Spotlight PA that while groundwater contamination from injection wells is not unheard of, it is rare due to “relatively strong” protections included in the federal and state permitting processes.

Before proceeding with an injection well in Pennsylvania, an operator must get approvals from the EPA and DEP. The process can take years as each office reviews the application and evaluates compliance with federal and state regulations.

The EPA in December 2021 granted Roulette Oil & Gas a permit to change the use of an existing well in Clara Township from production to disposal, pending approval from the state DEP.

The application also included two proposed monitor wells, which help monitor groundwater levels and can help collect samples for testing.

Pennsylvania’s oil and gas law requires that the applicant complete a map with information about the project and send a copy to stakeholders, including the municipality that houses the site. Proof of notification is required as part of the state’s permit approval process.

The supervisors knew about Roulette’s application for a permit from the EPA in 2021, and advocates then circulated an online petition urging the federal agency to deny the request. At the time, the DEP had not received an application from the company.

Mehl and Wylie told Spotlight PA that Roulette Oil & Gas never contacted the township about seeking a DEP permit, maintaining that all communication about the application came from the state.

A DEP spokesperson told Spotlight PA that the applicant notified the township in March 2022 but did not provide details or say how. The department said staff made several unsuccessful attempts to reach the township after it submitted an objection to the permit application in March 2023.

After receiving Mehl’s phone number from a third party, the DEP contacted him directly in April 2023, the spokesperson said.

Both the federal and state review procedures have a period in which the DEP reviews questions and comments from the public sent during the time frame, which is typically 30 days, and later issues a response to address feedback.

State law also lets the department or anyone with a “direct interest” in a proposal request a private meeting to resolve issues with an applicant.

Megan Lehman, a DEP spokesperson, told Spotlight PA in an email that the state offered to host a private meeting, or a “conference” as defined in state law, so Clara Township officials could express their concerns and attempt to resolve them directly with Roulette Oil & Gas.

The supervisors declined and instead asked for a public hearing, which is not required as part of the review process.

Local leaders and advocates think this gap excludes community input.

In local government, public hearings are commonplace and required for zoning changes, adopting an ordinance, or considering development proposals. According to Pennsylvania’s open meetings law, they’re supposed to be advertised in advance and used to collect input before making a formal decision. Even construction projects go through a bidding process so the public can see who wants to take on a contract.

For well permits, the state DEP decides whether to hold a public hearing based on interest and requests for one, Lehman said. This puts the responsibility on local officials and residents to lobby for a hearing.

The DEP agreed to hold a public hearing to discuss the project in July. The agency also extended the public comment period into September.

James Reynolds, the company’s managing partner, did not respond to a request for comment.

He attended the hearing but did not speak, according to a meeting transcript.

Roulette Oil & Gas withdrew its change-of-use application with the state in September. It’s unclear why.

A push for change

The township isn’t against the oil and gas industry, Wylie told Spotlight PA, but in a small municipality where supervisors meet once a month, he thinks the state process should include more time for residents to learn about what’s happening and provide feedback.

He suggested requiring companies to notify local governments at least 30 days before applying for a permit. Then, local officials could tell residents about the application, giving them time and opportunity to submit input.

Laurie Barr, co-founder of the well-plugging advocacy group Save Our Streams PA, said that 30 days isn’t enough time to contact people who own camps and don’t live in the area year-round. She thinks six months for public comment would be more reasonable.

Township supervisors are also thinking about how local control can help them achieve their regulatory goals.

In March, the board adopted an update to an ordinance — on the books in the township since 1987 — that regulates injection wells by prohibiting certain substances, requiring testing pre- and post-construction, and acknowledging risks associated with injection wells. The ordinance also includes language prohibiting injection wells within the township but acknowledges constitutionality might be an issue.

Bans on injection wells have faced legal challenges in state court. A rural township in Indiana County pursued a home rule charter more than a decade ago after an oil and gas company applied for an injection well. The effort, which gives municipalities more authority over local policies as long as they aren’t unconstitutional, resulted in several lawsuits.

Mehl asked the Potter County Board of Commissioners at a September meeting to consider implementing a similar ordinance, but nothing has been formalized.

Commissioner Nancy Grupp, who chairs the board, did not respond to a request for comment. Commissioner Barry Hayman voiced opposition to injection wells in Potter County during a September meeting.

Potter County Commissioner Paul Heimel, board vice chair, told Spotlight PA that he wants the public to be informed from the start of the process but said all parties involved could do a better job.

Heimel added that he’d like to see the state investigate incidents where wells have proven to have environmental risks and address those issues by strengthening Pennsylvania’s oil and gas laws.

Clara Township has allies at the state level too. State Sen. Katie Muth (D., Montgomery) and state Rep. Charity Grimm Krupa (R., Fayette) have introduced legislation that would ban injection wells statewide.

Another company recently withdrew an application for an injection well in Fayette County, and residents are also considering ways to implement local restrictions against them.

Muth helped Clara Township secure the public hearing, she told Spotlight PA.

Though she would prefer a statewide ban, Muth acknowledged that the existing review process should be easier to navigate and include publicly posting the information used to review permits, pre-drilled data, and continuous testing results.

She added that the state should do better outreach, including sending mailers to contact people without internet access and publishing notices about permits, especially in areas without local newspapers.

“There’s little to no awareness until something bad happens,” Muth said.

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