Pennsylvania: Pro-frac’ing judge must recuse himself from a frac hearing? “Hell Yes!”

Citizen group appeals to Commonwealth Court to overturn Murrysville fracking ordinance by Patrick Varine, May 11, 2021, triblive

The Murrysville Watch Committee, a citizen group seeking to overturn the municipality’s unconventional gas drilling ordinance, had its appeal heard Monday morning by the state’s Commonwealth Court.

The hearing began with attorney John Smith, representing the Watch Committee, requesting that Commonwealth Court Judge Drew Crompton recuse himself from the proceeding.

During his time as chief of staff for state Sen. Joe Scarnati, Crompton helped craft the legislation known as Act 13 in 2012, which addressed oil and gas operations statewide. In 2016, the state’s Supreme Court struck down a number of provisions in Act 13 as unconstitutional. Crompton was also involved in the Act 13 appeals process.

A YouTube livestream of the proceeding did not show most of the discussion related to Smith’s request, cutting to a hold screen, but when it resumed, Crompton remained.

The Watch Committee’s appeal is primarily centered around whether or not hydraulic fracturing is a use compatible with the municipality’s rural-residential (RR) overlay districts. Murrysville council created those areas, which allow drilling.

The Watch Committee’s challenge of the ordinance was denied by both the Murrysville Zoning and Hearing Board and the Westmoreland County Court of Common Pleas.

Smith argued that the creation of the overlay district was, in and of itself, an admission that drilling is not compatible with the surrounding uses.

“We’re not deciding whether there’s credibility issues with experts,” Smith said. “We’re looking at the record of what Murrysville did — did they act arbitrarily and capriciously in creating this law?”

Smith said the purpose of the RR district “was overlooked by Murrysville in order to create more drilling.”

“The purpose of the zoning district shows the lack of compatibility,” Smith said. “The (municipality’s fracking) task force recognized that it was a problem, but the municipality moved ahead anyway.”

Bill Sittig, attorney for Murrysville in the case, said Smith’s assertion that drilling is incompatible with RR zoning is “entirely incorrect.”

“The RR district allows major forestry. It allows mineral removal,” Sittig said. “But the municipality very thoughtfully said, ‘Look, there are portions of the RR district that are more heavily populated. So we limited it there by saying it’s compatible, but we’re going to be cautious and limit where we allow it.’ ”

Blaine Lucas, attorney for Olympus Energy, the company with the first approved unconventional drilling operation in Murrysville, said the overlay district was developed in concert with the municipality’s comprehensive plan, which lays out goals for the future, including where infrastructure such as public sewage and water are planned.

“There was a finding in the comprehensive plan, and in the due diligence for this ordinance, that the areas where oil and gas drilling is allowed are areas where it’s unlikely that infrastructure will be built for future residential development,” Lucas said. “So there’s a reason for where the (overlay) lines were drawn.”

Smith also took issue with the setback of 750 feet created by the municipality for the minimum distance between well operations and nearby homes. He cited the municipality’s task force recommendation of 1,000 feet.

Conversely, Sittig pointed to the state’s minimum setback of 500 feet.

“The municipality far exceeds that,” Sittig said. “So what they’re charged with is balancing rights. (Drilling) is a legitimate land use. It needs to be provided for somewhere. And you need to balance that with the impacts on the municipality.”

The court did not render a decision on Monday.

The 4 Minute Gap by bobscaping, May 11, 2021

Those of us watching the Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court hearing yesterday were surprised when we were excluded from 4 minutes and 48 seconds of that virtual public hearing.

It turns out that Panel 2 of the Commonwealth Court yesterday morning, included a judge who was “fracker friendly” prior to becoming a judge on the court in January of last year.

Judge J. Andrew Crompton, whose current term runs from January 2020 to January 2022, was closely aligned with pro-fracking legislator Joe Scarnati for 12 years before being appointed to the court. 12 fracking years! Here’s his resume from the Commonwealth Court web site:

Professional Experience
  • Chief of Staff to President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati and General Counsel to the Senate Majority Caucus, 2014-2019
  • Chief of Staff and Counsel to President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati, 2009-2014
  • Chief of Staff and Counsel to Scarnati in his capacity as Pennsylvania Lieutenant Governor/Board of Pardons Chairman, 2008-2011

Long story short, Judge Crompton helped craft and implement Pennsylvania’s onerous Act 13, you know, the one that allowed drilling and fracking in ALL zones of Pennsylvania, even including high end R1 Residential. Here is the text regarding those huge, football field sized impoundment dams:

“A local ordinance: Shall authorize impoundment areas used for oil and gas operations as a permitted use in all zoning districts, provided that the edge of any impoundment area shall not be located closer than 300 feet from an existing building.”

Can you imagine having one of these toxic fracking waste impoundments, less than the length of a football field, including the end zones, from your front door?
(Click here for video)

An April 20, 2012 story by Susan Phillips of StateImpact Pennsylvania, describes Judge Crompton’s relationship and stance on Act 13, quite well here:

“One of the chief architects of the state’s new oil and gas law, known as Act 13, says critics are using a section of the law regarding doctors to further their anti-drilling agenda. At issue is a portion of the bill that requires doctors to sign nondisclosure agreements if they need access to proprietary or trade secret information in order to treat a patient who may have come in contact with frack water, or drilling waste water. Some doctors have raised ethical issues about the provision, calling it a “gag rule.” Both the Pennsylvania Department of Public Health and the Pennsylvania Medical Society have issued statements that doctors will be able to share that information with their patients and public health officials. But a health law expert says the language is too vague. Drew Crompton is an aide to Senate President Pro Tem Joe Scarnati and helped craft the bill. Crompton says those who are raising questions about the law have an anti-drilling bias and are using it to further their agenda. “Not to discredt those who are sincerely looking out for the well being of others,” said Crompton, “but I think they’re making a mountain out of a molehill. These allegations are coming from people who don’t appreciate the industry and want to voice their opinion against it.” Crompton says no lawmakers, whether Democrats or Republicans, raised any issues about the provisions while it was getting debated in Harrisburg. He says the intent of the law is to protect patients, not the industry.”

“Making a mountain out of a molehill” says he. Really?

Gagging doctors so they can’t share critical information to treat other patients, all because the fracking industry wants to keep their proprietary chemicals secret. They shouldn’t be secret in the first place!

Meantime, we have unexplained clusters of teenagers who are dying, in our southwest corner of Pennsylvania, from Ewing Sarcoma, for God’s sake! The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette ran an entire series on those heartbreaking stories, while the state of Pennsylvania is still in the midst of a health study to determine why that happened. There are also scores of peer reviewed health studies pointing to the health hazards of living anywhere close to drilling and fracking, and this judge wants to call it “making a mountain out of a molehill.” How sad and pitiful is that?

Getting back to yesterday’s Commonwealth Court hearing, you can now see why attorney John M. Smith, of the Smith Butz law firm in Canonsburg, began his argument on behalf of a group of citizens, known as the Murrysville Watch Group, who are concerned about fracking being permitted in their residential zones, requested that Judge Crompton recuse himself from the panel.

This is where a nearly 5 minute gap in the virtual hearing took place, as the audience was muted from hearing the arguments regarding Judge Crompton’s recusal. An edited public hearing? Wassup with that? Will those arguments be made part of a future transcript of the hearing, for the public to see?

Finally, should Judge Crompton recuse himself? Hell Yes! From this case and all others related to drilling and fracking.

May 10, 2021 Frac Ordinance Hearing; Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania: Murrysville Watch Committee v. Municipality of Murrysville ZHB, et al. Dr. Jerome Paulson: “There is also no scientifically definitive setback distance that would prevent health and safety impacts from oil and gas infrastructure.”

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