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  • Writer's pictureEnvironmental Health Project

Personal Narrative: Jo & Tim Resciniti

Jo and Tim Resciniti of West Deer, Pennsylvania, were told that they couldn’t stop the development of a shale gas site in their community. As it turned out, they could.

Allegheny County, in which West Deer is located, ranks tenth of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties for overall gas production. In 2019, shale gas producer Olympus Energy submitted an application to increase gas operations in the county with the development of two new well sites in West Deer. These sites are named “Dionysus” and “Leto.”

Image courtesy of Concerned Residents of West Deer (CROWD)

A threat to public health

Sites like these can include multiple wells per pad, pipelines, and drilling and processing machinery. Operators may drill directly down as much as a mile and then laterally for as many as three miles or more. What may seem like a relatively simple operation from above ground often entails an extensive network of drilling operations underground. Shale gas sites can threaten the health of those who work, live, or play nearby through increased air and water emissions, truck traffic, noise and light pollution, vibrations, and more. In West Deer, this means that the Dionysus and Leto sites could directly impact the health of thousands of people.

Image courtesy of the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC)

Research indicates higher risks of certain health symptoms—the development or increased severity of asthma, headaches, fatigue, upper and lower respiratory complaints, low birth weight, congenital or neural tube defects, heart failure—are correlated with proximity to shale gas infrastructure. These studies also indicate that the risk of health impacts increases the closer one is to these facilities. In West Deer, an estimated 4,000 people—roughly one-third of the township—live within just one and one-quarter mile of Olympus Energy’s proposed Dionysus site.

A growing show of support

So, when the Rescinitis discovered in early 2020—on the brink of the global COVID-19 pandemic—that Olympus had submitted its application to develop the Dionysus and Leto sites in their community, they got to work. Jo, an author, and Tim, an engineer, created a community organization and a coordinating Facebook group called “Concerned Residents of West Deer” or “CROWD.”

Jo speaking to West Deer Township residents; image courtesy of Jo and Tim Resciniti

Tim speaking to West Deer Township residents; image courtesy of Jo and Tim Resciniti

The couple dove into serious conversations with their neighbors and other West Deer residents and began extensively researching the shale gas development permitting process, their local ordinances, and more. On the night of the first Dionysus public hearing, on August 11, 2021, Jo and Tim stood at the front of their local high school auditorium, prepared to identify CROWD as a party objector, meaning a group that has formally stated a stance of disagreement or opposition.

“I asked for our community group, CROWD, to have party status. We turned around. Literally the entire aisle behind us was filled with people lined up, out the door of the auditorium—lined up waiting to be party objectors. Even saying it is kind of giving me emotions. I mean, it’s like a scene in a movie where, you know… not that we needed validation from other people… but gosh. You never know who’s going to show up for you, right? But that was just amazing.” —Tim

“We’ve had a really good life, and that was a top moment in it. To have done so much work over such a long time and to have, a lot of times, felt like we were pretty alone, like we were only maybe going to have 12 people at most there… I think it ended up being that over 120 people that asked for party status and the Board of Supervisors granted it to 88.” —Jo

Building a successful advocacy campaign

With a growing show of support, Jo and Tim continued to strategize how to best protect their community. In addition to communicating with neighbors and other West Deer residents, as well as building a team of highly skilled volunteers, Jo and Tim explored their local ordinances and looked deeply into Olympus Energy’s plans for the Dionysus site.

“We came to understand that there are really only two tools that a community has to oppose a fracking well pad; the first tool being local ordinance, the second tool being the health, safety, and general welfare of the community.” —Tim

Jo secured a grant from Mountain Watershed Association that funded the community-wide distribution of informative postcards. The Rescinitis also established a phone line for answering questions and engaging in conversation with concerned residents. While Jo focused on sharing crucial information with the community, Tim and additional volunteers dove into the technical elements of Olympus Energy’s application.

One of the key components of CROWD’s case involved a communications hut on the property of the proposed Dionysus site. The hut—a very small, air-conditioned building alongside the road—is used for servicing the township’s phone and internet connections. Coincidentally, an involved CROWD volunteer used to work for a phone company and had an intimate knowledge of this building and its purpose.

West Deer’s ordinance qualifies a “building” as an enclosed structure that is protected from the weather that typically has heating, ventilation, and air conditioning, and that is either a place of residence or used as a workspace.

“The drilling company just wanted to ignore this because it’s way too close to the site. I know how to read. I know what this ordinance says. I know the features of that structure. It’s a building. I don’t think anyone would have believed there’s anybody who is even concerned, let alone opposed, to oil and gas [in West Deer]. I think that the company Olympus and the Board of Supervisors just assumed this was going to be a breeze. That’s one of the reasons I think that the problems with it complying with the ordinance were just being brushed under the rug. I think they were kind of rubber stamping this thing through.” —Tim

In addition to identifying this building, Jo and Tim enlisted the help of two CROWD volunteers with backgrounds in data analysis and technology to compare Olympus Energy’s Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) violation record with that of the top 20 unconventional gas operators in Pennsylvania.

“We kind of came up with the idea that just saying that Olympus has DEP violations isn’t enough to prove that they aren’t great for the ‘health, safety, and general welfare of the community’ argument to work. We had to be able to demonstrate that their impact is going to be, with a high level of probability, worse than what you would typically expect for this use.” —Tim

The volunteering duo discovered that Olympus had 735% more violations per hole drilled than the average top 20 operator in the state. This data was included in the findings that ultimately led to the West Deer Board of Supervisors’ unanimous denial of Olympus’s permit for the Dionysus well pad on December 15, 2021.

“Olympus’s people were only attending [the meeting] via Zoom. It was hybrid, and I’m told that you could hear the applause and cheers over Zoom. We took that as a win. A lot of the people from our group thanked the supervisors and said, ‘It's like a Christmas miracle.’” —Tim

A sense of community Shale gas operations can divide communities with promises of economic gain—which often fall short—in exchange for potential risks to health and property. Instead, Jo and Tim have grown closer to many of their West Deer neighbors throughout the process of fighting the Dionysus and Leto sites.

“I thought it was really powerful to see the way some of the people in our group developed as it went on because we had some people who were terrified to speak into the microphone that first night, that almost were in tears at having to walk up and say their name and address. And then by the end of it, this one younger woman, she got up at the part where it was time for the party objectors to make their case and she pulls up a chair. And she says, ‘I’m just going to sit down.’ She had a 45-minute PowerPoint presentation prepared. The change in her as those hearings went on was amazing. The confidence that people had to speak their mind about the issue was really something to see.” —Jo

“I’ll tell you that our experience improved our view of our community. I’m not saying that I’ve completely re-found hope in humanity. At least in West Deer, we are not alone. This is a non-partisan issue. We have people who I probably don’t agree with on anything other than protecting our community from fracking. We’re unified on protecting our community from fracking and that’s, you know, kind of all the matters at this point.” —Tim

United by their shared commitment to protecting their community, the Rescinitis and many West Deer residents continue to work together.

Continuing the fight

Since December 15, 2021, Olympus Energy has appealed the decision of the West Deer Board of Supervisors. CROWD volunteers and other West Deer residents are participating in the appeal as “intervenors”—a term used to refer to nonparty entities who have filed a formal motion to intervene in a lawsuit or other proceeding.

Since the original unanimous denial of the permit, West Deer’s Board of Supervisors has a few new faces—and, purportedly, ones who are in support of Olympus’s plans. Beverly Jordan—not a new face, but a previous supervisor—is now the chairman of the five-member board. Jordan works in the oil and gas industry and has vocalized support of drilling previously, appearing in photos online sporting a “MARCELLUS YES” sign and representing her employer at the Marcellus Shale Coalition’s Shale Insight Conference in Erie, PA.

Jordan appointed another individual to the board who has also publicly vocalized support for Olympus’s plans. The new appointee and a third board member are oil and gas lease owners. The current and significantly undiversified state of the board casts a bleak shadow on the impending fights against the Dionysus and Leto sites.

“The precedent that was set by the previous board goes in our favor. We would hope for consistency, even though there are different members on the board. You would hope, at least, for consistency in the interpretations of ordinances.” —Tim

The Dionysus case may make its way to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. As for the Leto well pad, a public hearing has been delayed until at least April 2022.

“We got a fair shake in the Dionysus hearing and feel less confident that the Leto case will go so well, but we’ll do the same thing we did last time and hope for similar results.” —Jo

“Between the two sites, we believe that the Leto site is a much worse location. So, the terrible irony could be that the better place for it—if there is a better place, not saying that it should go there—may end up being denied, but they may approve the worst place for it.” —Tim

There are few residents within a half-mile, and many within one mile, of the Dionysus site. In contrast, there are significantly more West Deer residents within the half-mile radius of the proposed Leto site. Should the Leto site come under development, a significant portion of West Deer’s residents would be at a heightened risk of experiencing negative health impacts. To remain updated on proceedings surrounding the Dionysus and Leto sites, visit CROWD’s website and Facebook page.

With grateful hearts

“The experiences of the people and the shared wisdom that they gave us paved the way for us. If the people from Indiana Township hadn’t shared their experiences with us, and without some of the previous rulings like in Jefferson Hills, we couldn’t have done what we did.” —Tim

“We definitely want to acknowledge the contribution of the rest of the community and the idea that none of this would have been possible without the support of so many people and their hard work.” —Jo

Jo and Tim; image courtesy of Jo and Tim Resciniti

How to help

Jo and Tim have shared ideas below on how West Deer residents, other frontline communities, and policymakers can help better defend public health from the impacts of shale gas development.

“For local people, we need them to show up. Whether it’s being party objectors or just making public comment, you know, we need to show our elected [officials] that this is hugely unpopular. The elected [officials] that I’ve talked to have talked about how much immense pressure comes from public comment.” —Tim

“We need more tools. Only having two tools isn’t really a great toolbox. We need support from the state and increased setback distances to keep people safe. If I could impress upon other people in other communities, I think everybody needs to read their oil and gas ordinance and if it’s not a protective ordinance, they need to get a group of people together and update it. It doesn’t matter if you think there’s nowhere that they could fit a well pad in your community. You should just assume that they’re going to try to fit it in someplace.” —Jo

For more information, visit CROWD’s website.


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