A narrow decision, 4-3, by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court puts drilling for oil or gas where it belongs in the pantheon of zoning uses, and probably does the same for mining and other extraction processes.

The court ruled June 1 that a natural gas well pad is an industrial activity, not a “public service facility.” Public service facilities, such as the sewage treatment plant DuBois is about to rebuild, can be built in residential or agricultural zoning areas under existing law. Industrial activities, though not forbidden, are much more tightly regulated in those areas.

Local governments now need to change a zoning designation from “residential” or “agricultural” to “industrial” before issuing permits for natural gas well exploration pads, with their attendant noise, 24/7 activity, lighting, etc.

The court is correct in its interpretation of “industrial” vs. “public service.”

Everybody needs access to drinkable water and treatment of sewage, be that from private wells and septic tanks or built-up systems.

We also need access to reasonably priced natural gas and oil and byproducts, but not in the same sense of on-site availability. Most of us drive to gasoline stations that are located in built-up areas, not in the middle of farm fields or pole timber forests.

The three dissenting justices made a cogent point: Once the construction phase is completed, only one pickup truck a week usually visits a site, and one small building plus some piping usually comprises the totality of the effect of a completed well pad. But that calm appearance can be deceiving.

Gas wells catch fire, explode, leak and collapse, just as do sawmills, steel mills, feed mills and the like. That is why mills are usually defined as “industrial uses” in zoning terms, to require some separation between them and residential or agricultural areas.

The alarmists who broadly (and inaccurately) assert that all deep wells and hydrofracturing operations are bad are wrong. But that too-broad brush hides problems with well drilling, including the stupid government-sanctioned policy of allowing drilling wastewater to be “disposed of” by injecting it into deep wells. That is the same bromide that once allowed us to discharge raw sewage into rivers and streams on the theory that it would be swept away – ignoring the reality that “downstream” got polluted.

Placing well drilling into the area of industrial zoning spotlights the requirements that such stupidity must yield to realistic, albeit costly, treatment of drilling waste, not simply hiding it until it burbles back into ground water.

— Denny Bonavita

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