Cecil Township to add new restrictions on oil and gas drilling

Augustine George well pad
The Augustine George well pad as seen from residents homes on DePaoli Road on May 13, 2024. (Liz Partsch photo)

MCDONALD, Pa. — Located in the hilly backwoods of southwestern Pennsylvania, only a thin patch of woods sits perched between a row of houses and their noisy neighbors: Range Resource’s Augustine George well pad.

One residence on DePaoli Road is located roughly 530 feet away from the Augustine George well pad in Cecil Township, Pennsylvania. That’s 30 feet above the 500-foot-allowed distance as specified by a 2012 Cecil Township oil and gas ordinance.

The noise coming from the well pad is “beyond what the human body can take,” said resident Merle Lesko, at a recent Cecil Township Board of Supervisors meeting. Lesko lives on Coleman Road. His home is just over 600 feet away from the Augustine George well pad.

In recent years, increased complaints about the noise and potential health impacts from residents living close to these well pads has driven a push for tighter restrictions on where and how the oil and gas industry can operate in the township.

As a result, the Cecil Township Board of Supervisors will revise its existing ordinance to increase setbacks of future well pads from protected structures — like houses, schools, businesses and churches — and limit well pad hours of operations.

The board will hold a final public hearing on June 5 at 6 p.m. at the Cecil Township Municipal Building, 3599 Millers Run Road, Cecil, Pennsylvania, where the latest updates to the revised ordinance will be discussed.

“Our goal is to get any future wells as far as possible from protected structures, yet, leave some spots (for wells),” said Tom Casciola, chairman of the Cecil Township Board of Supervisors.

Zoning setbacks

Instead of simply increasing the minimum setback distance from residential areas, the revised ordinance would mark specific zones for potential oil and gas development based on certain criteria, Casciola said.

“We’re not looking at feet anymore. We are going a different way,” Casciola said. “Some municipalities (have) designated an area in the township where drilling will be permitted. This way is to find the remotest areas in the township and designate those areas as the only drillable (locations).”

Some of the criteria the board used to locate these remote zones include areas not within 1,000 feet of existing well pads, not within 4,000 feet of major subdivisions and neighborhoods and parcels that intersect a storm line system.

The board identified two zones in the northeastern side of Cecil Township that matched all criteria. Within these zones, well pads would be located a minimum of 1,800 feet away from all protected structures.

Noise limits

The revised ordinance would also set restrictions on hours of operations for well operators. Currently, well operators are allowed to work 24/7. The current lack of restrictions has led to resident complaints of loud noises throughout the night and turbulence that shakes their homes.

“It is hard to tell everybody what the noise might sound like but it’s basically a helicopter about 100 feet over your head that never lands. It just stays there and never lands,” Lesko said, at the April 1 board of supervisors meeting.

Lesko told the board he has been in contact with Range Resources about reducing the noise. The company tried to decrease the sound of drilling operations but has been unsuccessful, he said.

The board of supervisors said they are also working with Range Resources to address the noise issue and that the new ordinance will set stricter limits on the noise future wells can produce. The Augustine George well pad, however, was permitted under the current ordinance; therefore none of the new limitations in the ordinance will apply to existing wells in Cecil Township.

Range Resources did not respond to a request for comment on the ordinance.

Why now?

The board of supervisors was supposed to update the ordinance in 2020, however, the COVID-19 pandemic delayed the process. Now, an increased number of noise and vibration complaints is driving the need for change. Two public hearings on the revised ordinance were packed with residents who wanted to speak.

The first public hearing for the ordinance, held on April 3, featured acoustical engineer Will Thornton who discussed a series of independent noise and monitoring studies he conducted on behalf of the township. He measured the noise at two well sites in Cecil Township: one in the production phase and one in the drilling stage. The studies concluded the noise did not violate the ordinance.

However, Thornton said a series of “deficiencies and loopholes” in the ordinance is not allowing the township to “effectively regulate and control the kind of noise and vibration being omitted by those operations.” He provided a critique of the current rule so the board can consider necessary changes.

A recent study on the health impacts on people living close to unconventional wells, released by the University of Pittsburgh, also spurred residents to push for more restrictions on oil and gas activity.

The Pitt study, released in July 2023, found people living within 10 miles of an unconventional well during the production stage were four to five times more likely to see their asthma worsen. The study also found that children living within one mile of a well had a five to seven times greater chance of developing lymphoma than those living within five miles of a well.

The Pitt study recommended a 2,500-foot setback distance oil and gas well distance from protected structures to avoid such health impacts. Residents at the public hearings were pushing for this minimum set distance.

However, Casciola said 2,500 feet isn’t possible as it would effectively drive out all drilling operations in the township, which the board can’t do according to Pennsylvania’s Act 13 law. Instead, at the latest meeting, the board discussed shorter distances like 1,500 feet and 1,000 feet.

The board ultimately decided to allocate certain zones for oil and gas wells to ensure they are located the furthest distance away.

“If we designate 1,000 (feet) that would be county-wide. It might be 50 areas around the township that are 1,000 feet away,” Casciola said. “With this one, there might be only two or three areas.”

(Liz Partsch can be reached at epartsch@farmanddairy.com or 330-337-3419.)

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