Demand for Sanctions Erupts in PA Fracking Feud

PITTSBURGH (CN) — Three years into its challenge of a small town’s efforts to stamp out fracking, the utility Pennsylvania General Energy has urged a federal judge to award sanctions.

A rural community about 50 miles northwest of Pittsburgh, Grant Township enacted what it called a Community Bill of Rights in June 2014. That spring, Pennsylvania General Energy applied for state and federal permits to adapt an underground injection well from a deep-gas well it had been operating on Yanity Farm since 1997.

Attorneys for the township at the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund touted the ordinance and a subsequent municipal charter as the first of their kind, but PGE has been fighting in court to have the law ruled unconstitutional.

Though some aspects of the case remain unsettled, a federal judge invalidated provisions of the law in 2015 and granted PGE partial summary judgment this past March.

Citing the cost of litigating the town’s “frivolous legal claims and defenses,” PGE supplemented its motion for sanctions last month.

Grant Township fired back Friday, saying that PGE is going after its attorneys at the legal defense fund because it knows Grant is too small to satisfy a money judgment.

“What is playing out in Grant is what has played out in thousands of communities across the United States – a resource extraction corporation sues a rural community, places industry call ‘sacrifice zones’ – to force in damaging projects that the community doesn’t want or need,” Thomas Linzey, the CELDF’s executive director, said in a statement.

Faced with a demand for $560,000, the CELDF notes that its clients are not backing down when it comes to protecting Grant’s 300 households from toxic frack waste.

“The people of the township recently reinstated the ban through popular adoption of a new home rule charter, which now serves as the governing document for the community,” the CELDF said in a statement. “The company has not challenged the new charter, but certain provisions have now been challenged by the state itself, through Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection.”

PGE argues in its motion for sanctions meanwhile that the township’s attorneys are acting in bad faith.

“The founder of CELDF recognizes that its tactics are illegal, stating that ‘overturning legal doctrines that support current injustice requires frontal and direct breaking of existing laws,’” the motion states.

PGE also cited the numerous instances in the record where “Grant Township and attorney Linzey have admitted that the purpose of the defense of PGE’s suit and the claims that they have pressed were for the purpose of furthering their political agenda against corporations and lawful commercial activity in the commonwealth and in favor of changing the political landscape and desire to eliminate constitutional rights through improper means.”

Declining a request for comment, PGE Human Resources executive Karen Thomas said the company has a policy not to comment on ongoing litigation.

The company is represented by Kevin Garber, James Corbelli and Alana Fortna of Pittsburgh firm Babst, Calland, Clements and Zomnir.

CELDF’s attorneys warned that they will file their own motion for sanctions.

“The corporation and the state are combining to elevate the corporation’s right to dump toxic waste … over the rights of the people who live in the municipality,” Linzey said in an email.

“[This] is, of course, always the story,” Linzey added. “The state and feds … serve the interests of the extractive corporations over the interest and rights of the people on the ground.”

Linzey’s group warns that PGE seeks to dump 152 million gallons of frack waste in Grant Township over 10 years, and that there is no dispute that the toxic, radioactive waste will remain in the township forever.  

PGE’s motion noted a June 13 mediation was scheduled for the remainder of its case, which was referred to U.S. District Judge Arthur Schwab for settlement purposes.

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