Standing Up for Environmental Justice

Earlier this month, Executive Director Patrick Grenter joined other environmental attorneys from around Pennsylvania in condemning recent comments by a high-ranking Range Resources executive regarding that company’s apparent preference to locate shale gas wells away from big homes.

The Center for Coalfield Justice, the Pennsylvania Chapter of the Sierra Club and Clean Air Council submitted a letter to the DEP Office of Environmental Justice asking them to investigate this issue further. The Pittsburgh Post Gazette editorial board weighed in on the comments, and afterwards the Range executive posted an online apology. Since then, some elected officials - individuals charged with representing the interests of residents in their districts and with upholding the state Constitution - have come to the defense of the Range Resources executive. Why, you might ask, have they not come to your defense instead?

Our letter to the Office of Environmental Justice is a simple request for a thorough investigation into these issues. Given the seriousness of the Range representative’s comments, we think that well drilling permits should be included in the list of activities that trigger environmental justice policy provisions designed to facilitate public participation, specially tailored to environmental justice communities. These provisions are common sense, straightforward, and not overly burdensome for the Department to employ - implementing such a policy would be an important first step in understanding the environmental justice considerations associated with shale gas development.

Further, any real public participation would be an improvement over conditions on the ground as they’ve existed in the last decade of unconventional shale gas development.  The process for permitting shale gas wells currently offers little to no public participation; well permit notices are only sent to the surface landowner and those with private water supplies within 1,000 feet of the well. Those who are notified are only offered 15 days to object, which is incredibly difficult to do in such a short time period. The general public is never notified. The Erosion and Sedimentation Control permits, which are granted to allow for the construction of the well pad and roads associated with it, are not noticed publicly either; they are just listed in the Pennsylvania Bulletin after they have been issued.  

At the very least, informal meetings as required for trigger permits under the EJ policy, will be an improvement on existing practices. Those meetings should occur at least 30 days before any construction begins at the well site and must be widely noticed, preferably by direct mailers to residents within at least a mile of the well location, in newspapers and in the Pennsylvania Bulletin. After the meeting, there should also be an opportunity for public comment and the Department should respond to those comments. These are not revolutionary requests; these practices are in line with requirements for other industrial activities in Pennsylvania. Residents deserve access to information and participation in the decision making process regarding industrial activities that have the potential to impact their communities.

We should not think that this is simply enough, or that notice provisions will allow for achieving environmental justice. There must be a meaningful and long-term examination of shale gas wells and operations, with a focus on determining how these activities have been sited in relation to vulnerable populations. Given recent industry comments, and the harms to human health and the environment in areas where shale gas drilling operations occur, if there is a finding that  the predatory behavior suggested at the Environmental Law Forum did occur in Pennsylvania, we do not think shale gas permitting should continue in this state.