Two rural townships have temporarily agreed not to enforce portions of their home rule charters designed to ban underground disposal wells for oil and gas wastewater, after being sued by the state Department of Environmental Protection.
Last month the DEP approved permits for two new injection wells in Highland Township, Elk County, and Grant Township, Indiana County. The department also sued both townships the same day–challenging language in the charters that invalidated the disposal well permits and held DEP liable for issuing them.
“I’m pleased that DEP and the townships were able to come to a temporary agreement quickly, and in a way that allows DEP employees to continue to do their work,” Acting DEP Secretary Patrick McDonnell says in a statement. “I’m hopeful that we can continue to work with these municipalities to ensure that residents’ concerns are addressed.”
Underground disposal wells are controversial because they’ve been linked to a sharp uptick man-made earthquakes. The DEP says it’s imposed special conditions on the permits which will allow them to be operated safely. The state also recently expanded its seismic monitoring network to keep a closer eye on earthquake activity.
DEP petitioned Commonwealth Court for a temporary injunction and hearings were scheduled for Wednesday, but were cancelled when all parties agreed the contested provisions of the home rule charters would not be enforced while the cases proceed.
In a statement last month, DEP spokesman Neil Shader said the agency wasn’t trying to retaliate against the townships with the lawsuit. Instead, the department wanted the court to rule on what takes precedence.
“For example, the charters attempt to invalidate permits issued by the DEP for activities that are authorized by state and federal law,” Shader wrote in an email. “In addition, both charters provide for fining any government, including the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, that acts contrary to the home rule charters.”
The townships’ attorneys did not immediately respond to requests for comments Thursday. Reached by phone, Highland Township supervisor Glen Hulings said he could not discuss the case.
Both local governments have spent years fighting the disposal wells. They adopted the home rule charters with help from the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund (CELDF)– a group which embraces novel, and largely unsuccessful, legal tactics for communities around the country to fight unwanted development projects.
In an email, CELDF Pennsylvania organizer Chad Nicholson disputed the idea Grant Township was backing off its injection well ban and emphasized the townships are not coordinating their responses to the lawsuits.
Note: this story has been updated with comments from CELDF, and clarified that DEP has filed two lawsuits– one against each township.