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Pennsylvania Township Loses Fight to Ban Injection Wells

A small Northwest Pennsylvania township's nearly four-year fight with Seneca Resources Corp. appears to be over after supervisors there overturned an ordinance banning underground injection wells that dispose of oil and natural gas wastewater.

Highland Township in Elk County, which is located in Seneca's Western Development Area, passed the ordinance in 2013. New supervisors on the township's board voted earlier this month to scrap the ordinance in light of a lawsuit Seneca filed in February.

Just days after the vote, a magistrate judge in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania signed a consent decree that requires Highland to stop any future challenges against state permits for Seneca injection wells and additional local permitting requirements for the company. The decree also forces the township to acknowledge that the community bill of rights banning injection wells is unconstitutional under state and federal laws.

The court ruled in April that Seneca had standing to challenge the township ordinance, allowing its lawsuit to advance (see Shale Daily, April 5). It was seen as unlikely that the township could prevail in that case, which prompted supervisors to rescind the ordinance. The ordinance banned injection wells in the township and invalidated some wells that had already been permitted by state and federal regulators. Unlike West Virginia and Ohio, the Environmental Protection Agency has regulatory primacy over all types of injection wells in Pennsylvania.

Seneca argued that the ordinance prevented it from converting its natural gas wells into injection wells. The EPA had already granted the company a permit to do so, but when Seneca filed the lawsuit the state Department of Environmental Protection suspended its permit review. The company now plans to reapply for a permit.

The Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund (CELDF), which has helped communities across the basin draft anti-industry ordinances, filed a motion for reconsideration on Aug. 15. A CELDF motion to intervene in the lawsuit was denied earlier this year.

In separate news, a Southern West Virginia county recently filed an appeal in U.S. District Court challenging a judge's decision to invalidate a similar ordinance that banned underground injection wells. The Fayette County Commission approved that ordinance in January. But over the summer, U.S. District Judge John T. Copenhaver Jr. ruled that the ordinance violates state laws and is preempted by the state's regulatory authority (see Shale Daily, June 13). The court granted a motion filed by an EQT Corp. subsidiary that operates an injection well in the county.

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