Gas firm and residents clash over plans to drill near a public school in Allegheny Co.

The suburban Pittsburgh community already houses 38 gas wells

By: - September 12, 2022 10:47 am
Elizabeth resident cross-examines Dr. Christopher Long, a witness for Olympus Energy (Pittsburgh City Paper photo)

Elizabeth resident cross-examines Dr. Christopher Long, a witness for Olympus Energy (Pittsburgh City Paper photo).

By Jordana Rosenfeld

A public hearing process over an application for a permit to build another gas well in Elizabeth is shaping up to be a weeks-long affair.

The applicant, Canonsburg, Washington County-based Olympus Energy, wants to build a well pad and an interconnect pad off Route 51 in Elizabeth, a suburban Pittsburgh township that already houses 38 gas wells. To move forward with the plans, the firm needs to obtain a conditional use permit.

Critics of the plan argue well emissions are harmful, and the proposed site is too close to Elizabeth Forward High School. The well pad’s proposed location is approximately 1,700 feet away from the school.

Project Manager Ryan Daily reviewed Olympus’ plans for the well pad and the interconnect, which would allow them to tap into the existing natural gas pipeline nearby, noting that the well’s planned location is further away from “protected structures” than state law requires.

Conditional use permit hearings in Pennsylvania follow a format similar to court proceedings. The applicant has an opportunity to call witnesses to present their side, and those deemed to be directly impacted by the proposal, called “parties,” have a chance to cross-examine all witnesses.

Last week, 11 individuals were granted “party status,” based on the proximity of their homes to the proposed site of the well pad. The board of commissioners or town council presides over the hearing and must remain impartial until they decide the fate of the permit application.

The applicant must show that its plans satisfy all the relevant requirements in the zoning ordinance. If they can do that, they’re entitled to an approved permit unless one or more parties can prove that the proposed use would be injurious to public health, safety, and welfare.

Olympus’ second witness was Christopher Long, a board-certified toxicologist specializing in exposure assessment and indoor/outdoor air pollution. Long presented a study that his employer, Gradient, undertook for a fossil fuel company that he said showed that emissions from the unconventional gas well in question did not exceed “health-based benchmarks.”

Long also presented a review paper he worked on at Gradient that he said showed there was no meaningful difference in air pollution between areas with lots of natural gas drilling and areas with none.

Community members who cross-examined Long repeatedly suggested his testimony wasn’t relevant since the wells his study considered were not owned by Olympus, the company applying to build in Elizabeth. One person with party status claimed that on past occasions that parties have been able to cross-examine Olympus’ experts, questioners were not allowed to raise concerns that were not specific to the proposed site.

Parties also questioned the impartiality of Long’s work, given that some of Gradient’s clients are fossil fuel companies.

Long insisted on the credibility of his analysis, often mentioning that the study in question had been published by a peer-reviewed journal.

Olympus has faced community opposition to its conditional use permit applications in other communities in the region, including West Deer, which last year voted to deny Olympus’ application for a well, and Rostraver in Westmoreland County, which held a seven-session hearing earlier this year on an Olympus permit.

The Elizabeth hearing will resume on Thu., Sept. 15 at 7 p.m. at the Elizabeth Township Municipal Building (522 Rock Run Rd., Elizabeth).

Jordana Rosenfeld is a reporter for Pittsburgh City Paper, where this story first appeared

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