From Local Governmental Bodies (Including Municipalities and School Districts):
Sometimes, municipalities will allow you access to files easily, particularly if you have a good existing relationship with your municipal manager. The “you catch more flies with honey” approach is sometimes a good place to start. But, it is important to make those requests as soon as possible, particularly when you know a company is applying for an approval within your community. Having access to the company’s documents will help you prepare your questions and comments as a part of any local meetings or hearings pertaining to the proposed oil and gas permits.
If you are unsuccessful in simply asking for the files, you can submit a formal Right to Know request (RTK). Like the PA DEP, all local governmental bodies keep files that are accessible to the public, including Township Boards, Commissions and Councils, as well as local School Districts. Public documents can be made available to any citizen requesting them by submitting a RTK via email and attaching a completed RTK form.
Included in the list of documents you can request are: meeting minutes, application documents, Act 14 notification letters, zoning maps, ordinances, and correspondence including emails between the applicant and the Township. Not included in the public files are correspondence or emails between elected officials and their Solicitor.
For more specific details on access to public files please see the Environmental Integrity Project’s Citizen Toolkit, available October 2016.
Formal File Review, or Right to Know Request:
This is best used as a follow up to any informal file reviews you complete. For example, if there is a document referenced in the public file, but the file does not include a copy of that document, you could request that specific document as a Formal Right to Know Request. The Formal RTK should be reserved for specific documents instead of the entire file as the process can take much longer than the Informal File Request detailed above.
Informal File Review:
This is the most efficient way to request the opportunity to view, scan and/or photocopy all public documents housed at PA DEP. When you conduct your file review, particularly at a PA DEP regional office, be prepared to spend the day and bring the following items: a scanner, power cords, a staple remover and lunch. Citizens can schedule a date and time to see the actual documents companies have submitted to the PA DEP, the correspondence and emails between the company and the state, as well as any other data that is part of the public file.
Locate which PA DEP office is applicable to the site(s) you are requesting. Get the name and email address of the person to whom you will be submitting your Informal File Review Request.
E-mail the appropriate person at the regional office of the PA DEP with a subject line of Informal File Review Request. In the body of the email include the following:
I would like to request the opportunity to view the entire file for (Name of the operator and specific site: well pad, compressor station, processing plant) located in (Township and County) for the past (number of months/years).
Complete a standard Informal File Review form and attach it to your email.
A Guide to Protecting our Schools and
Communities from Shale Gas Development
Requesting File Reviews
From PA Department of Environmental Protection (PA DEP):
There are good people at the PA DEP willing to help you, but you need to also help them. Knowing what documents you want to see and how to ask for them will help the currently understaffed PA DEP more efficiently respond to your requests. The following provides some helpful hints on how to request public documents from the state. The timing of the file review is critical. To see state files, it can take up to six weeks for your request to be granted so be prepared to consider a file review as soon as you see a new permit through E-Notice or ask for an extension of the comment period if DEP takes too long to grant access to files.
Act 14 Notices
PA DEP requires notification to local and county governments as part of their permit review process. These notices are known as Act 14 municipal notifications and are mailed to the municipality and county where a new well pad or other facility has been proposed. Local officials are often unaware of the need to respond to these required notices to provide essential feedback. The municipality and county have a limited number of days to respond with comments or questions. Generally, the time limit is 30 days; however, for some permits the time is limited to 15 days. PA DEP relies on information provided by the local municipality in their decision to approve or deny the proposed facility. Specifically, the PA DEP wants input from the local and county officials on land use and comprehensive plan compatibility issues. If no response is received, PA DEP will automatically issue a permit, assuming it meets all other requirements.
It is very important that all citizens and locally elected officials fully understand this unique and rare comment opportunity. This is the only opportunity for the local community--through the elected body--to raise important questions about a proposed project. The Act 14 letters should be tracked by citizens and local officials, as a notification will be sent for each project for which an operator is seeking PA DEP approval.
For more specific details on Act 14 municipal notification letters and how track and respond, please see the Environmental Integrity Project’s Citizen Toolkit, available October 2016.
Where To Find Other Data
Other types of data that can be useful include property owner information as well as deed information to help you better understand what is happening with properties near the proposed infrastructure.
County Tax Assessment/GIS mapping
In order to obtain lists of landowners, determine who owns property, or for maps of specific parcels, you should contact the County Tax Assessment office. Contact information can generally be found on your county’s website. There is a fee for work done by the tax assessment office in gathering documents and information and preparing them. Sometimes the information is available through geographic information system (GIS) map records at no cost.
County Recorder of Deeds
The Recorder of Deeds office provides data about real estate transactions including deeds, mortgages, releases, easements, surveys, land plans, restrictions and right-of-ways. Information obtainable through this office includes oil and gas leases for the development of mineral rights, leases for surface rights to build infrastructure such as a well pad, and easements for pipeline right of ways. This can be extremely valuable information when trying to determine where industry expansion may occur. Similar to the tax assessment office, a fee is required for document preparation.
Meetings with PA DEP or a Company
There are several instances in which meetings with PA DEP can be requested. As part of the Act 14 municipal notification process, local officials in the host municipality can ask for a meeting to discuss Land Use and Comprehensive Plan concerns. The meeting can be in person or via a conference call.
Residents who have concerns about a well permit submitted to PA DEP can request a conference under section 3251 of the Oil and Gas Act. Generally, the conference involves a discussion facilitated by PA DEP between representatives from the operator and the residents. The PA DEP can make recommendations during and/or after the meeting, and agreements reached during these conferences can become enforceable.
Citizens living in PA-designated Environmental Justice (EJ) communities are entitled to additional community meetings to explain more about the permit application being sought by a company and the process by which it will be reviewed by the PA DEP. To see if your community has been designated as one of the Environmental Justice (EJ) communities, click here. To request additional community meetings as part of the Environmental Justice (EJ) program, click here for instructions:
Although PA DEP’s travel budget has been severely limited, there are times when PA DEP may agree to visit your community. It’s always worth a phone call to the Regional Office in your area to inquire as to the possibility of a community meeting with PA DEP staff.
If you are unable to secure an in-person meeting with PA DEP staff, you could request a conference call so you and your team can discuss questions, concerns and/or seek clarification on permitting procedures. Whether your meeting with the PA DEP is in person or via conference call, be sure to do your homework first:
Meet with your team and, using the public documents you’ve obtained, compile a list of questions you’d like to ask.
Be sure you have company documents--retrieved via public file reviews--and make your questions as specific as possible and related to these documents.
Review the applicable PA DEP rules and regulations for the oil and gas operation being proposed for your community and have those documents accessible in the event you need to refer to them during your meeting with the regulatory staff.
Know that your meeting will be limited, so being well prepared will make your time with the PA DEP more productive.
Research and be prepared to discuss your specific recommendations for the proposed infrastructure.
For more tips about how to request and obtain information from the state, please see pp. 33-36 of Clean Air Council’s guide: Natural Gas in Your Community: Participating in Decision Making & Tracking Infrastructure.
J: Obtain Information
Having factual information about what industrial operations are proposed for your community is extremely important for ensuring a transparent review process and more productive public participation. The best way to gather important, factual information is through public file reviews at the state and local levels. A file review is a formal process that allows you to gather more specific information than is available on PA DEP’s website. A similar process called a Right to Know request can give you access to the documents your local governmental body will be using to make a decision about a proposed oil and gas activity. Information is easily accessible if you know what to ask for and to whom to make those requests. Details are provided below.