A small town in Northwest Pennsylvania is gearing up for what could potentially be a big battle against Seneca Resources over a drilling wastewater disposal well.
In January, the Environmental Protection Agency approved Seneca’s application to operate a deep injection well in Highland Township – despite a local ordinance passed in 2013 banning such wells within the township’s borders. The oil and gas industry uses these wells to dispose of wastewater – which contains salts, heavy metals and some naturally-occurring radioactive material – deep underground.
On Wednesday, the local board of supervisors voted to retain legal counsel to defend the ordinance in front of at least 30 onlookers, including residents from other townships.
“I want you people all to see we’re signing our life away here,” said Chairman Jim Wolfe as he penned his signature on an agreement with the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund or CELDF.
It is the same Mercersberg-based non-profit legal group that helped craft the township’s deep injection well ordinance, as well as an ordinance banning natural gas drilling within the Pittsburgh city limits. According to the agreement, CELDF will represent Highland Township pro bono in the event of a lawsuit from Seneca or other companies that may dispute the ordinance. This week, the township supervisors also sent a letter to Seneca, reaffirming their position against the well.
“They’re going to put toxic chemicals about 3,000 feet from our water supply and that’s not acceptable,” said township supervisor Joe Milstead.
“We have to do it. That’s what the people want and I think it’s the right thing to do.”
And now, the township waits to be served.
Last summer, a Seneca attorney wrote a letter to the Highland Township supervisors threatening legal action in federal court if they did not revoke the ordinance, which attorney Brian Clark wrote “is in direct violation of federal and state law.” Seneca argues that federal law would preempt a local ban.
Seneca spokesman Rob Boulware said the company recently attempted to meet privately with the supervisors and their attorney to discuss their concerns before addressing the entire community. Township solicitor David Pontzer advised the supervisors not to meet with Seneca unless it was in a public forum.
“Seneca Resources is very interested in engaging stakeholders in a constructive dialogue if given the opportunity to do so,” Boulware said in a statement.
According to the EPA, there are only seven active deep injection wells in Pennsylvania. Scientists have suggested these disposal wells may be linked to increased earthquake activity in states like Texas and Oklahoma.
The EPA recently issued a final permit for a deep injection well in Brady Township, Clearfield County where residents are also appealing the project.
Marsha Buhl with Concerned Citizens of Highland Township, a group that has organized in opposition to the well, said she is relieved the supervisors will defend the ban. She worries a well failure could contaminate the town’s water supply.
“I’m sure it’s going to be expensive and hard,” Buhl said. “The thing is, I stand up for what I believe and we have the people backing us.”