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In the fracking fields, a fight over who regulates

Workers chat at Consol Energy Horizontal Gas Drilling Rig exploring the Marcellus Shale outside the town of Waynesburg, Pa., on April 13, 2012.

In the natural gas fracking debate, all eyes are on Harrisburg, Pa. Any day, the state supreme court will rules in a case that goes to the heart of this drilling boom: Who makes the rules? Can companies drill and frack wherever they want?

This whole fight began where fracking in the East began: Washington County, west of Pittsburgh. Eight years ago, drillers poked the first holes into the Marcellus Shale formation. And the natural gas boom was on.

"Right along the ridge there is a water impoundment, says Joanne Wagner, a local mom. She's standing on a snowy hill, pointing out all the pipes and equipment the drilling has brought.

She calls it industrial spaghetti -- which localities here and elsewhere want to push away from homes and schools.

The fear is air and water pollution.

"A friend of mine who no longer lives there has kids my childrens' age, around 8 and 10, with documented exposure to toxins in their blood and urine tests," Wagner says.

The suspected source here is open pits for frac wastewater. Fracking a well takes millions of gallons of water -- plus sand and chemicals -- shot underground. Natural gas comes back up, along with water laced with chemicals and compounds. That contaminated water has to go somewhere

One water pit leaked. It's about a mile from her kids' school.

"They know that exposure to benzene is cancer-causing," she says. "My friends and their children have exposure to benzene. So what am I supposed to do?"

The drilling company that first came here to lease land is Range Resources. Spokesman Matt Pitzarella attributes any problems to "early days." Bumpy start.

"Everything always evolves," Pitzarella says. "And it always improves. And through repetition, all of the engaged parties -- including the industry -- gets better at what it is that we do."'

Several townships here aren't convinced. They've passed restrictions on where gas equipment and waste pits can go. Andrew Schrader's a supervisor in Cecil township. He says these zoning restrictions also apply to office buildings, factories and adult bookstores.

"Zoning says you have to allow for everything in your community," he says. "But you control by putting it in the proper areas."

By picking a fight with drillers, political ping pong ensued. Industry allies at the state capitol passed Act 13. It preempts, or undercuts, local restrictions.

Drew Crompton is chief of staff to the bill's chief architect, Republican senator Joe Scarnati. "It was becoming more of the trend for local governments to enact their own individual and often overly burdensome regulation on shale development," he says.

Historically, states regulate oil and gas activity. And industry wants to keep it that way.

In 2005, Congress gave fracking an exemption from federal drinking water rules. But with states in charge -- does it invite conflicts of interest?

A fossil fuel company flew Act 13 author Scarnati to the 2011 Super Bowl. One study finds 40 percent of regulators in big drilling states have industry ties.

Douglas Shields is former head of the Pittsburgh city council, which passed its own frack ban.

"In Pennsylvania, there are no limits on campaign contributions whatever," he says. "If someone wants to write you a check for $5 million tomorrow, there's no limit.

State law trumped the townships, and the townships struck back, in court. Shields says remember, this is Pittsburgh.

We don't like being told what to do," he says. "And we don't like it when people tell us that we have no rights at the local level to decide anything.

The townships won -- in lower court. The case was appealed, and now the state supreme court will rule any day.

This is not just a Pennsylvania thing: cities and towns and a few states have all passed rules with a common argument: drillers can't go wherever they want.

Meantime, much of Washington County stands divided. Mom activist Joanne Wagner is criticized as a not-in-my-backyard whiner. The driller, Range Resources, faces several lawsuits.

And some are making money.

New tractor owner George Skovran has a well on his property yielding royalty checks. He's buying a car for his wife, too. "She deserves a new car ... before it breaks down. Of course I'll buy myself a new truck, too."

In the end, it comes down to drilling companies -- their trucks, rigs and waste pits -- and whether they're perceived as good neighbors.

If not, they invite more restrictions that could stop the natural gas revolution in its tracks.

About the author

Scott Tong is a correspondent for Marketplace’s sustainability desk, with a focus on energy, environment, resources, climate, supply chain and the global economy.

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