On May 31, the PA Supreme Court issued an opinion allowing a municipality considering a local zoning permit for a gas drilling operation to take first-hand evidence and testimony of residents from another municipality with respect to the impacts to their health, quality of life and property from a similar drilling operation.
The case involved a special conditional use permit denied to EQT and an affiliate to operate an unconventional natural gas drilling on a 29.7-acre property in the Borough of Jefferson Hills, Allegheny County.
In addition to the proposed 16 gas wells on the property ,there would be a 3.4 million gallon water impoundment pond containing water to be used during the drilling operation.
The Jefferson Borough Council held a hearing on the application that included testimony from 3 objectors who were residents of the adjacent Union Township in Washington County near a similar gas well drilling site constructed in 2007.
They described their experiences with the drilling operation that included having to leave in the middle of the night “countless” times, staying at a hotel away from the site for 2 months, serious respiratory illness and other impacts.
The Borough Council denied the special conditional use permit for drilling citing all of the testimony it had received.
EQT appealed the Borough’s decision to Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas which reversed the Borough’s decision without taking additional evidence.
The Borough then appealed that decision to Commonwealth Court, which affirmed the Common Pleas Court decision.
In its decision, the PA Supreme Court said, “We determined that the evidence received by the governing body, detailed above, including that provided by the residents of the community regarding how the facility impacted their day-to-day lives while it was in operation, was sufficient to enable the objectors to demonstrate detriment.
“We expressly rejected the Commonwealth Court’s conclusion that this testimony constituted only “bald assertions,” or “unsupported anxieties,” because the residents’ testimony was based on their own firsthand experiences with the operation of the facility.
“In sum, then, we conclude that the testimonial evidence of the Union Township objectors was both relevant and probative as to the question of whether the grant of conditional use authorization to EQT for construction and operation of the Bickerton site would adversely impact the health, safety, and general welfare of the residents of Jefferson Borough; therefore, it was properly received and considered by Council in rendering its decision on EQT’s application.
“The Commonwealth Court panel improperly characterized this firsthand experiential evidence as “speculative”; therefore, we are constrained to vacate the order of the Commonwealth Court and remand to that tribunal, with instructions to remand this matter to the trial court to reconsider its decision in light of this opinion.”