By now, the great majority of people in Elk County, along with the rest of the Commonwealth, have seen the mass advertising campaigns for Tuesday’s election, including heavy mailings on the part of both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, Sen. Pat Toomey, and even Senate President Pro-Tempore Joe Scarnati.
However, one local referendum question has both sides of the issue following suit.
Last week, Seneca Resources of Houston started their own campaign in an attempt to aide the Highland Township supervisors quell the rebellion as a Home Rule Charter is on the ballot in the township, one which could significantly limit the power of the supervisors.
In 2013, the Highland Township supervisors enacted a Community Bill of Rights ordinance which would prohibit wastewater injection wells in the township. The move came after Seneca announced they would be converting one of their wells within a half mile of their township water source into a wastewater injection well. Seneca then filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court in the Western District of Pennsylvania to have the ordinance overturned. In August, township supervisors Mike Detsch, Glen Hulings and Jim Wolfe entered into a consent decree with Seneca, saying they would drop the ordinance if the drilling company dropped the lawsuit.
However, a referendum question in the April primary election formed the Highland Township Home Rule government study commission. The commission was charged with studying the Pennsylvania 2nd Class Township Code to decide whether or not to keep the Code or draft a Home Rule Charter. The commission, comprised of president John Guras, vice president Lloyd Hulings, and commissioners Amy Beers, Bill Edinger, Misty Edinger, Judy Orzetti and Matthew Vaughn voted to draft the Charter.
Orzetti abstained from the vote as she was newly appointed to the seat of Erin Vassallo, who was elected to the commission but never took office after accepting a job out of the area.
And with the Home Rule Charter gaining steam, Seneca decided to start their own ad campaign.
The ad campaign included a full page color ad which ran in newspapers in Elk and McKean Counties. It explained what a Class IID wastewater injection well actually is, the construction of an unconventional well, how they protect underground water sources, and why oil and gas companies use wastewater injection wells in the first place.
However, they also did a mass mailing to the voters of Highland Township. It claims the Charter “bans certain oil and gas activities in your township in violation of the Pennsylvania and United States Constitutions.”
Seneca’s mailing goes on to cite the example of U.S. Magistrate Judge Susan Paradise Baxter’s ruling against Grant Township, Indiana County in favor of Pennsylvania General Energy of Warren in 2015 “after the Township adopted a local ordinance that banned certain oil and gas activities similar to that proposed in the Highland Township Home Rule Charter. The judge deemed the ordinance to be in violation of the Pennsylvania Constitution. The judge also ruled that Pennsylvania General Energy (PGE) would be allowed to pursue collection of damages.”
However, what was not pointed out was that the case against Grant Township was closed in July 13, 2016, after the township adopted their own Home Rule Charter in Nov. 2015. The court told PGE that they would have to file a new case after they changed to the Home Rule Charter. So far, PGE has not filed a new case. The only movement which resembles a new case is the request by Grant Township to reopen the old one for the “limited purpose of supplementing summary judgment briefs and unopposed request for status conference.” According to Chad Nicholson of the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund (CELDF) of Mercersburg, the township made the request because it believes “PGE cannot show any harm or damages due to the Ordinance in Grant Township.”
CELDF represents Grant Township and formerly represented Highland Township. They currently represent the Highland Township Home Rule government study commission.
But that is not all that stood out in Seneca’s ad. One noteworthy item was the mailing said “Paid for by Seneca Resources Corporation.”
However, according to Kim Frey, director of the Elk County Board of Elections and Voter Registration, Seneca had not filed any paperwork with her office as an independent expenditure or as a political action committee at the time of the mailing. After a call to Tricia Malehorn at the Pennsylvania Department of State, Frey said the drilling company had not filed their paperwork with the state, and Malehorn could not find anything filed on the federal level, either. However, Frey said after speaking with Seneca last week, they would file the necessary paperwork for an independent expenditure with her office by Nov. 4. She said Seneca had until Dec. 8 to get the paperwork in to the office.
Rob Boulware, manager of stakeholder relations for Seneca Resources, issued the following statement last week:
“Seneca Resources uses a mix of paid and earned media to convey its position on a variety of oil and gas issues. The proposed home rule charter, which includes an illegal ban on certain oil and gas operations, is no different. Some residents may recall that Seneca Resources used a direct mail piece in January 2013 to address questions from the public about the proposed injection well following the US Environmental Protection Agency’s public meeting. While we consider the most recent mailer to be an informational piece, there is no point in debating whether it is information or advocacy as it is a simple and easy process to file an Independent Expenditure report – which is an option for any person or corporation for ballot questions.”
Nicholson issued the following statement on Friday: “”Seneca’s ad is designed to mislead and intimidate. No court or judge has said anything about the validity of HighlandTownship’s proposed Charter. Implying that decisions in Grant Township would affect Highland’s proposed Charter is like comparing apples and oranges.
“The ongoing litigation in Grant Township is over an Ordinance that was adopted by the elected officials in a Second Class Township. In contrast, Highland’s proposed Charter is being presented for a vote to the community. If adopted, the Charter would elevate Highland’s status to that of a Home Rule Municipality. As Judge Baxter recently acknowledged in the Grant Township case, litigation over an Ordinance is distinct from litigation over a Charter.
“The real story here is that corporations — such as Seneca and PGE — want communities to believe that they are powerless. These corporations have been suing communities for large sums of money, claiming that communities do not have the right to protect themselves from harmful activities. And residents have good reason to be concerned, according to a report from State Impact Pennsylvania:
“Regulators fined Seneca Resources Corp. the second largest total amount in 2013: $377,000 in seven fines that encompassed 59 violations from February 2010 to March 2013.
“Violating permits is the definition of breaking the law. It’s worth wondering why Seneca, an out-of-area corporation, with a history of environmental violations, is spending so much money to defeat a Charter that was democratically written, with broad community input, to protect the community’s rights.”
However, Seneca Resources and CELDF are not the only entities weighing in on the matter.
A political action committee based out of Highland Township called “Citizens Against a Toxic Township” (CATT) launched their own mass mailing last week. Frey received their paperwork last week. The CATT mailing stated the township supervisors “have sued the County Board of Elections to keep our resident from even casting a vote on the Charter.” It went on to state the supervisors “spent Township funds to pay a lawyer in an attempt to stop resident from even being able to vote on the Charter,” that they “repealed an ordinance that prohibited a toxic wastewater injection well in the Township,” and that it happened “behind closed doors,” and have “effectively shut down all questions from the citizens of Highland Township at Township meetings.”
At the end of the mailing, the words “don’t let tactics of fear and intimidation dictate your decision!” right above a large green check next to the words “Vote For.”
The polls are open from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. Nov. 8.