Protect Our Children
In 2014 the Clean Air Council helped form the Protect Our Children coalition. The coalition consists of parents, concerned residents, and advocacy organizations like the Council dedicated to protecting children from the health risks of shale gas drilling and its infrastructure by working to keep all shale gas drilling and infrastructure away from schools. Members of the coalition develop and share resources to support those advocating to protect their schools and children from the risks of fracking.
Protect our Children originated when several groups, including the Council, noticed a pattern of schools facing fracking projects in Butler County and other areas of southwest Pennsylvania.
Why the Issue Matters
The work of the Protect Our Children coalition and the Council’s related litigation will affect public health in Pennsylvania for years to come. Every stage of natural gas production, processing, and transportation causes air pollution by emitting harmful pollutants like benzene, toluene, and particulate matter. These pollutants cause a variety of health harms that have serious consequences over time. In the short-term, they can cause irritations and coughing. Long term, pollution from natural gas activity can cause blood disorders, respiratory diseases, heart disease, cancer, and other major problems. Because children are still growing, they are particularly vulnerable to these chemicals’ effects.
Beyond Pennsylvania, there are the global implications of increased fossil-fuel production. Natural gas is composed primarily of methane, a potent greenhouse gas that causes 86 times more warming than carbon dioxide in the short-term. The more we frack, the more our planet will warm, and the more harmful consequences it will bring about.
In addition, there is the issue of community control, particularly who gets to decide if fracking should happen in a community and under what circumstances. The Council supports communities’ right to determine what happens in their own backyards, but the political clout of fracking companies is often able to overwhelm community opposition to fracking’s development. The Protect Our Children coalition works to right this imbalance, providing organizing and legal support to ensure communities opposed to fracking can most effectively protect their schools and children.
Work in Middlesex Township, Butler County PA
School Board Hearings
One of the first issues that coalition partners worked on was with a struggle in Middlesex Township to keep fracking operations away from an elementary school in the Mars School District. In 2009 Rex Energy sought the right to frack on school grounds but was rebuffed. In 2014 they tried again. The Council and its partners helped by providing educational and organizing support to a local group, the Mars Parent Group. The Council held a planning meeting with the Mars Parent Group to brainstorm different options for achieving their goal to prevent fracking near their children’s school. The Mars Parent Group went on to get petitions signed by the district’s parents, held a rally in front of the school, and packed school board and township meetings with speakers.
Despite Rex’s offer of $1,000,000 upfront and 15% of drilling royalties, the school board unanimously rejected the offer on a 9-0 vote. In announcing their decision, one Board member cited the fact that the lease agreement could not compete with the value of protecting the health and safety of students.
Clean Air Council Takes Legal Action in Middlesex
Zoning Board Hearings
Having failed twice and been strongly rebuked by the community, Rex’s efforts were halted. But rather than accept the will of the community, Rex pushed ahead and leased property from neighbors less than half a mile away from the school. Although Rex had the property owners’ permission to drill, they still needed the local zoning board to approve their plans.
Council attorneys attended the zoning board hearing and argued that Rex didn’t have the right to change zoning laws to suit its needs at the expense of the community. The Zoning Hearing Board agreed to hear our appeal, and over the course of 9 hearings both sides presented their cases. When all was said and done, the Zoning Hearing Board ruled in Rex’s favor. We weren’t particularly surprised, though, because all 3 members of the board had leased their land to gas companies. Expecting this, we immediately appealed the decision to the next stage, the Butler County Court of Common Pleas.
In this new setting, our attorneys argued two central points. The first is that the Zoning Hearing Board and the PA DEP haven’t properly done their job evaluating whether this is a good idea. Changing zoning laws to allow industrial activity in residential/agricultural communities is a major decision, and parts of the process have been skipped (for example, the Zoning Hearing Board never conducted an evaluation of the site and the PA DEP’s analysis didn’t take site-specific issues into consideration).
The second major argument was based on the Pennsylvania state constitution’s guarantee of “clean air, pure water, and to the preservation of the natural, scenic, historic and esthetic values of the environment.” This amendment was added in 1971 and has had a mixed history. A recent Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruling (known as the Robinson decision) revitalized this section, requiring the government to protect the environment for all citizens. The Council has argued that changing zoning laws to allow this industrial activity where none was allowed before runs counter to the Robinson decision.
As the case has worked its way through the legal system, both sides have seen success and setbacks. The judge reviewing the Zoning Hearing Board’s decision initially issued a stay in the case, meaning Rex had to stop all work until the case was decided. The stay meant that Mars’ 3,200 children went back to school in the fall without industrial pollution next door.
This was also the first time in Pennsylvania history a stay had been issued in a fracking case like this. The judge found that there was reason to believe the community could be irreparably harmed by fracking next to the school. He also published a formal document laying out his reasoning, which was almost immediately cited by our allies in other court cases.
Despite this promising start, the judge ruled against us in mid-November 2015. While certainly a setback, the case is far from over. The Council has appealed the case to the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania. After that, regardless of the decision, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court is likely to hear the case and issue the final decision. This fight could go on for months, maybe even years, and will set an important precedent for the entire state.
When the case went to the Butler County Court of Common Pleas, industry’s allies decided to start playing dirty. A group of developers and landowners filed a lawsuit against the Council, accusing the Council of running “an incendiary scorched earth campaign” and “misusing the legal process” for no purpose other than to cost the landowners money. They demanded over $100,000 in compensation from us and certain Middlesex residents who opposed them, an astronomical sum for private residents and groups like the Council.
This lawsuit is a prime example of a Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation (a SLAPP suit). SLAPP suits are meant to scare activists into abandoning their opposition to industry plans, and they’re illegal in Pennsylvania. Council lawyers acted fast, and the SLAPP suit was soon dismissed. The landowners re-filed the suit, but in June 2016 the case was dismissed again.
If you’d like more information about the Council’s legal work to protect schools from fracking, please contact Alex Bomstein. His phone number is 215-567-4004 ext. 118, and his email is firstname.lastname@example.org.
Work in Penn and Trafford Townships, Westmoreland County PA
While the Middlesex case is certainly the most prominent work of the Protect Our Children coalition, it’s not our exclusive focus.
Penn Township has also benefited from Protect Our Children’s help. Apex Energy has inundated Penn Township with plans for fracking and related infrastructure. Protect PT is a grassroots organization that formed in response to these plans, and has partnered with Protect Our Children to fight back against Apex’s plans. Protect PT invited the Council to testify at a public hearing held by Penn Township to hear feedback on a zoning ordinance change that would open up the township to more fracking. Clean Air Council also provided feedback on a zoning ordinance revision for Trafford Township, which ultimately included a half mile protection zone around schools in which fracking and related infrastructure is prohibited. In addition, the Council held a planning session with Protect PT to work on their campaign to convince Penn Township supervisors to revise the ordinance change to eliminate elements that would open up the township to a lot more fracking.
Work in Mt. Pleasant Township, Washington County PA
Another major success came from Mt. Pleasant Township. Not long after the fight began with Rex Energy, Mt. Pleasant community leaders reached out to the Council for information about local land use issues and our recent appeal. Range Resources was looking to build 3 well pads within half a mile of the local high school, Ft. Cherry. All they needed was approval from the township.
Council organizers got involved, developing and presenting a land use law webinar to local parents and residents organizing against Range’s proposal. Council attorneys worked with other attorneys in the coalition to provide them with resources from our appeal. Local opposition began to organize and residents, working with coalition partners, challenged Range Resources’ permits. Range officially withdrew their application shortly thereafter. Range Resources officially cited a bad market and reduced capital as the cause, omitting any mention of local opposition.
Unfortunately, Range Resources is back with proposals to fracking near Ft. Cherry High School. Parents are already organizing educational events to raise awareness about the risks of fracking, especially to children’s health.
Work in Cecil Township, Washington County PA
Protect our Children assisted a group of concerned parents in Cecil Township who had been tracking a proposal to build a compressor station near their children’s school. A compressor station is a huge set of engines and other equipment used to both remove liquids from the gas and also pressurize the gas to transport it through pipelines. The Council met with parents to discuss potential next steps for raising awareness in their community about the proposal. The Council provided the group of parents a fact sheet to use in their outreach to neighbors. Coalition members were later approached by the group of parents to contribute ideas for industry best practices that the township could consider asking for, so several organizations worked together to craft a detailed letter from the coalition.
Work on natural gas-fired power plants
As part of its Protect our Children work, the Council has also focused on two natural gas-fired power plants proposed to be sited near schools. In 2014, Council legal and outreach staff worked with residents to develop a petition to Tenaska Energy, a company proposing a large natural gas-fired power plant near a school. The Council also helped Westmoreland residents successfully request a DEP public meeting and hearing on the air permit for the power plant. The Council is also working with Citizens for a Healthy Jessup against the proposed Lackawanna Energy Center, which would be Pennsylvania’s largest gas-fired power plant to date if built.
If you’d like more information or need help in your community, please contact Matt Walker. His phone number is 215-567-4004 ext. 121, and his email is email@example.com.