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Penn. township challenges fracking with ballot initiative

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A small township in western Pennsylvania is fighting back against fracking and attempting to write a ban on the practice into their local Bill of Rights, but they may be thwarted by their own town council.

Peters Township in Washington County, population 21,213, is home to the Peters Township Marcellus Shale Awareness Group, an activism group formed after residents viewed Josh Fox’s anti-fracking documentary “GasLand.”

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PTMSA collected 2,422 signatures to place their Home Rule Charter amendment on the ballot on November 8 of this year, asking the question below.

“Should the Peters Township Home Rule Charter be amended to add Section 1.04 “The Peters Township Bill of Rights”, which enumerates the right to water, the rights of natural communities, the right to a sustainable energy future, and the right to self-government; and which secures those rights by banning corporate gas extraction within the Township and subordinating corporate rights to the rights of Peters Township residents?”

On Monday night, however, the town council will vote to decide whether the question will even appear on the ballot.

“We have rights as a group and as a community, majority should rule as far as whether we should allow something like this — at industrial scale — to come into a residential neighborhood,” PTMSA member Rod Fletcher told Raw Story. “This is how democracy works.”

Fletcher joined the ranks of PTMSA’s approximately 100 members last year, but before that, he was actually on the other side of the issue. Unemployed for more than a year, he began researching the natural gas drilling companies in the area during a job search. The more he learned, however, the more horrified he was with fracking and the intent to do it in his community.

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“Now I wouldn’t touch it with a 10 foot pole,” he said.

Though PTMSA said that they found residents 2-to-1 or 3-to-1 opposed to drilling, professional polls suggest otherwise. A recent Franklin & Marshall College poll found that 66 percent of Pennsylvania residents had an either strongly or somewhat favorable opinion of natural gas drilling companies. Thirty-nine percent agreed that the economic benefits of drilling outweighed potential environmental consequences, while 26 percent said they didn’t know.

Educating voters about fracking and its consequences has proven to be a major roadblock for PTMSA and other anti-fracking activists, so much so that Fletcher is unsure whether the ballot ban on fracking would pass in Peters Township.

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“We’re very limited in our resources,” Fletcher said. “There’s a lot of folks in our township that still don’t understand what’s coming.”

Eric Belcastro, a Pennsylvania organizer for the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund, the group that helped PTMSA write their ballot language and has helped other Marcellus Shale communities try and prevent fracking, agreed.

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“It’s difficult to put this stuff on a bumper sticker,” he said. “It’s hard to communicate.”

Other Pennsylvania townships have also taken up efforts to ban or regulate natural gas drilling, including Ross, Sewickley Hills, South Fayette and Collier.

The drilling companies are pushing back, however. In August, in response to a South Fayette Township ordinance that requires $5,000 permits for drilling and creates off-limits buffer zones around hospitals and schools, drilling company Range Resources filed suit challenging the validity of the ordinance.

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In the event that the Peters Township question makes it onto the ballot and passes, both Fletcher and Belcastro see a challenge coming. Belcastro said that a court challenge is a danger, but not as dangerous as allowing fracking.

“In Peters they’re facing this thing that they have to choose what sort of safety they want. If you choose to not challenge anything, and just allow these companies to bend you over and treat you as a resource, you can do that,” Belcastro said. “There’s a certain amount of safety in that from court challenges. You’re not safe though, because you’re allowing compressor stations to go up, and the stress and danger that goes along with it. You’re not safe any which way.”

Creative Commons image via flickr user Marcellus Protest.

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