• Keeley Teslik

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.