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Greens Win Challenge to PA Pro-Fracking Law

(CN) — The Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled that the controversial Act 13, a sweeping law regulating the oil and gas industry, is unconstitutional because it gives special treatment to that industry.

In 2012 a group of municipalities and citizens filed a 14-count petition challenging Act 13, accusing lawmakers of giving the oil and gas industry special treatment under local zoning laws.

For example, under the law, gas corporations do not have to publicly report new chemical contaminations as long as they claimed a trade secret was involved, and they are allowed to seize certain property through eminent domain.

Additionally, medical professionals are forced to submit written request to gas and oil providers if they believe their patients are suffering from the effects of contamination.

The Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court ruled in 2014 that those provisions of Act 13 did not violate the statute constitution.

The plaintiffs, however, alleged that the goal of Act 13 was to limit environmental protection against chemical contamination resulting from hydraulic fracturing, or fracking.

The law provides that environmental contaminations resulting from fracking only need to be reported if they result in the contamination of drinking water, and it allows the utility providers to make that determination themselves.

Article III Section 32 of the Pennsylvania Constitution provides that the state shall not pass any special law regulating labor, trade, mining or manufacturing.

The plaintiffs argued on appeal that Act 13 does exactly that by "restricting health professionals' access to information regarding chemicals or substances used in fracking which have been designated as confidential or proprietary," according to court records.

The Commonwealth Court found that the laws were not special in that they did not single out any member of the oil and gas industry or any physician for special treatment.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court disagreed Wednesday, ruling that most of the law violates the state's constitution.

It found that certain sections of the law were unconstitutional at the state and federal level, particularly those that limited doctor's access to chemical contamination levels resulting from the oil and gas industry, and those that gave eminent domain privileges to private corporations.

"It appears no other industry in the Commonwealth has been statutorily shielded in this manner by the imposition of stringent limitations and conditions on the access to, and use by, health professionals of information pertaining to chemicals, substances, or materials used in its operations claimed to be trade secrets or confidential proprietary information," Justice Debra Todd wrote for the high court.

The citizens also alleged that Section 3241 of Act 13 violated the U.S. Constitution by allowing corporations to exercise eminent domain over private individuals.

The Commonwealth Court held that this was untrue in that the act only confers the powers of eminent domain on public utility corporations, but the Pennsylvania Supreme Court again disagreed.

"A mere incidental benefit to the public from the taking is insufficient to render it lawful under both the United States and Pennsylvania Constitutions," Todd wrote. "Further, because the exercise of eminent domain power is in derogation of private property rights, any statute that authorizes its use will be strictly construed in favor of landowners."

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