By Sara Stewart
According to the oil and gas company Pennsylvania General Energy, the Indiana County township, population 700-ish, is depriving the corporation of its constitutional right to dump fracking waste there, or to sell it to another company interested in doing so.
The suit, filed on Dec. 9 in the U.S. District Court of the Western District of Pennsylvania, spells out its grievances in a 162-article document.
“Grant Township’s conduct in abrogating PGE’s interest in environmental and UIC [underground injection control] permits at the Yanity Well is deliberate, arbitrary, and irrational, exceeds the limits of governmental authority, amounts to an abuse of official power, and shocks the conscience,” reads one particularly dramatic article.
Stacy Long, vice-chair of the township’s board of supervisors, said she gets why the company targeted their township in the first place.
“This was a perfect place for something like this — the middle of nowhere, no prying eyes, very few people to complain,” she said in a Dec. 29 phone interview. “Nobody is going to care. So four or five houses lose their wells, and maybe two old people get really sick. What does that matter, in the grand scheme of things?”
Generally, in cases like this, the company with the deep pockets prevails. But this township has been putting up an epic, and thus far successful, fight against the injection well since PGE first purchased the land on the Yanity family-owned property in 2013. At that time, PGE announced its plans to convert the conventional gas well there to an injection or disposal well, where the hazardous byproducts of fracking would be deposited deep underground.
The township, aware of numerous examples of injection wells that have failed and contaminated soil and water, stated that it refused to be a repository for toxic waste.
The ensuing years saw a clash between the township residents and the corporation that included a landmark move to protect the rights of nature and the establishment of a Home Rule Charter in the township that banned permanent disposal of frack waste.
PGE said the charter was unconstitutional; the DEP sued Grant, then reversed course and upheld the charter, revoking PGE’s permit. After eight years, the legal fight continues on three fronts in state regulatory proceedings and in state and federal courts.
The township’s argument against the well has always been pretty straightforward: Despite the fact that PGE insists its injection well will be perfectly safe, there is plenty of evidence that these things fail all the time.
LATE LAST YEAR, an example popped up right in their backyards. A conventional gas well, also owned by PGE and located less than a mile from the site of the proposed injection well, leaked in October of 2020.
“On October 6th, one of PGE’s conventional wells had its casing fail and it blew out untold amounts of wastewater into the soil,” Long said. “They install these f****ers and don’t come back and check on them.”
Neither did they disclose much about the spill.
“They didn’t say how much it leaked, but there were — almost 50? More than 50? — train car-sized dumpster containers parked up on the site, and they had a backhoe up there, and every one of them was filled with soil and hauled away,” Long said. “And that’s just from one well!”
Actually, it turned out to be a lot more than that: Tom Decker, community relations coordinator for the DEP’s northwest region office, told The HawkEye in a Jan. 21 email that “the site was remediated by excavating a total of 1,639.35 tons of impacted soil, which was disposed of at Valley Landfill in Irwin, Pennsylvania. The final report included 107 container disposal manifests.”
When asked if local residents were notified about the spill, which the DEP said consisted of “brine normally produced by an operating well,” Decker said, “Initial assessment of the release indicated the impacts were localized to the soil, so no individual notices to residents were required.”
Long is not satisfied with this response.
“I think it’s interesting that Tom Decker finds 107 containers of brine-soaked soil leaked into a watershed were ‘localized’ and so no one had to be alerted,” she said.
HER CONCERNS are borne out by studies on the contaminants found in this type of fluid:
Conventional-well brine has come under fire in recent years for its radioactive toxicity, particularly around its popular use in this area as a de-icer on roadways, where it can easily leach into waterways.
PGE has not been fined by the DEP for this spill yet, although it been fined multiple times before, for similar violations.
Long said the township has had a related problem with the huge increase in the amount of trucks on the township’s small roads, hauling the toxic soil away and bringing in new soil.
“The road is not built to have that kind of truck traffic on it,” she said. “It’s a dirt road covered with snow. I talked to [PGE’s] office manager, trying to get the road bond fixed. I kept saying, ‘This road is not built for that kind of traffic. It’s going to fail eventually.’”
The road has not been fortified yet, and Decker said the DEP “has not been made aware of any such concerns. Typically, operators are responsible to ensure that remediation operations follow local restrictions on roadway use. This often involves bonding or repair and is addressed by the local governing body.”
In other words, “once the accident or the contamination occurs, the burden of proof falls on the community, and then you have to sue [the company], and all of that expense is on you,” said Long. “And that’s the way it works everywhere.”
Hence why the township established the Home Rule Charter, which explicitly bans the dumping of fracking waste. Its enactment of community rights has not gone over well with some local politicians.
“[State Sen.] Joe Pittman, [R-Indiana] while campaigning at a rally in Clymer, was asked by someone, ‘What are you going to do to help those people in Grant Township?'” Long said. “Pittman told him, ‘Those people shouldn’t have done what they did.’ He said the DEP would take care of everything.”
Sen. Pittman did not immediately respond to a Jan. 23 email.
When they look at the version of “taking care of everything” that happened with the spill late last year, the township supervisors are not optimistic.
But then, “It’s never been like PGE is trying to sell us on the hygiene or safety or the wonderfulness of having an injection well in our community,” Long said. “They know this is horrible. They have to know it’s going to ruin us.”
Anyone in this region who’s concerned about public health should be paying close attention to what happens in Grant Township, Long said, because fossil fuel industries certainly are:
“Once this lawsuit is settled, if it’s favorable to [PGE], look for Indiana County to become toilet central,” Long said.
BUT IF THE TOWNSHIP prevails, its success could have major implications for other towns looking for ways to defend their own water and land against toxic dumping.
Chad Nicholson of the pro-bono Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund, has stated, “The fossil fuel industry is terrified the tactics taken in Grant Township are spreading. This community continues to act as a lighthouse in a raging storm made up of oil and gas corporations, state permitting agencies, and enabling courts that have crashed down on them for over five years. Yet they remain standing, protecting their own community. They serve as both a warning signal to other communities, as well as a beacon of hope and courage to those who wish to fight back.”
The township is required to file a response to the suit by the middle of February, and the suit looks poised to drag on for months after that. Although the suit will keep the injection well on hold, it also means another year in which the supervisors’ lives will be consumed with worrying about it.
“Living with this over my head,” said Long, “is something I absolutely hate.”
An earlier version of this story has been changed to reflect that Grant Township supervisors banned the permanent disposal of frack waste; they did not ban any other fracking activity.
Sara Stewart is a freelance journalist who writes for the New York Post, CNN.com and other publications. For The HawkEye, she has covered domestic violence during the Covid-19 pandemic and the White’s Woods logging controversy. She lives in Indiana and is a member of the Indiana Borough Council.