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Lawsuit Seeks to Silence Fracking Opponents

Homeowners are concerned about the environmental and health effects of fracking. (Daniel Foster/Wikimedia Commons)
Homeowners are concerned about the environmental and health effects of fracking. (Daniel Foster/Wikimedia Commons)
May 25, 2016

PITTSBURGH -- The future of a lawsuit seeking damages from opponents of gas drilling near their homes and schools is in the hands of a judge.

The lawsuit, filed by gas leaseholders and a developer, seeks more than $500,000 from homeowners and environmentalists who are challenging a zoning ordinance that opens most of Mars Township to fracking. The leaseholders have said they're being deprived of the right to sell what's under their property. But Vic Walczak, legal director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania, said the lawsuit is really meant to intimidate people exercising their rights.

"Under the First Amendment," he said, "you simply cannot be sued or in any way punished for engaging in these time-honored political and legal activities."

A motion to dismiss the leaseholders' lawsuit was heard at the Butler County Courthouse late last week and the judge now is considering the arguments in the case.

Walczak called the leaseholders' complaint a SLAPP suit, which stands for strategic lawsuit against public participation. He said developers commonly file SLAPP suits -- not to win, but to harass those who oppose their plans.

"It has a tremendous chilling effect on people's willingness to participate in the political process," he said, "and so it's a way of attacking your opposition and minimizing any kind of dissent."

Drilling already has begun at a well pad within 1,000 feet of homes, and about half a mile from district schools.

Walczak said the homeowners' concerns are well founded, as the recent explosion at a gas well in nearby Salem Township made very clear.

"If that same explosion had occurred at the Geyer well," he said, "it would have incinerated the homes where these folks live and caused some serious problems at the school."

A similar lawsuit was dismissed in October. The current suit is an amended version of that previous complaint.

Andrea Sears, Public News Service - PA