Somebody should have kept an eye on this Pellegrini guy back in January, when he had the impertinence to rule in favor of a journalist in a dispute in Easton, where it was none of the public's business what public officials were doing.
The Easton Area School District wanted to do things in secret, and that included keeping correspondence about district actions away from a nosy reporter at The Morning Call. Commonwealth Court President Judge Dan Pellegrini sided with the reporter. Who does he think he is? Thomas Jefferson?
Now, just seven miles south of Easton, Pellegrini has again sided with the rabble in a ruling that foils the schemes of the top figures in Pennsylvania government in their noble quest to give their financial benefactors, mainly the gas drilling industry robber barons of Texas, everything they want.
This past week's defeat for the gas drillers, even if only temporary, should not come as a surprise. (When the Commonwealth Court ruling is appealed to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, which knows how to play ball with the powerful, the rabble probably will be defeated, again.)
Pellegrini wrote, and cast the key vote in, a sensational 4-3 ruling by the appellate court, released Thursday. That decision was to protect the peasants of Nockamixon Township in Bucks County, and of six other municipalities, from gas drillers who want to be able to foul wells and streams without the meddling of local zoning officials.
The ruling trashed much of a new state law, enacted in February by the Harrisburg crowd, the recipients of millions of dollars in so-called "political campaign contributions" from generous gas industry people. (Gov. Tom Corbett received around $1 million just for himself.)
The law, Act 13, prohibited the enforcement of any local zoning rules that got in the way of the hydraulic fracturing process used to extract gas — by forcing tons of intensely polluted water into the ground to break up gas-bearing rocks, with much of that water then gushing back to the surface.
It was argued by the gas drillers and their flunkies in Harrisburg that the justification for such a law was "uniformity." I have argued for the principle of uniformity, but only for things like traffic laws. You can't have the rules of the road changing every time you cross a municipal line.
Anyway, Act 13 required municipalities to change zoning ordinances. Drilling must be allowed, Act 13 said, within 500 feet of buildings and water wells and within 300 feet of streams. The setback for the stream locations where drinking water is withdrawn, however, was 1,000 feet.
That was not much comfort for people who read about gas drilling spills in various parts of Pennsylvania that have affected the water for miles downstream.
Act 13 also established "impact fees" for gas drilling. Although each well may bring millions of dollars in profits (there are 4,000 new wells in Pennsylvania and thousands more planned, largely at the expense of state forest lands), the impact fees are tiny.
After pocketing his "campaign contributions," Corbett promised the gas robber barons that Pennsylvania would remain the only gas-producing state in America that does not have a meaningful "severance tax" on the value of gas extracted.
All this, Pellegrini's ruling observed, was in brazen defiance of the Pennsylvania Constitution, where Article I, Section 27, says this: "The people have a right to clean air, pure water, and for the preservation of the natural, scenic, historic and aesthetic values of the environment. Pennsylvania's public natural resources are the common property of all the people. …"
That provision was ignored when coal robber barons had Pennsylvania's top officials in their pocket, and it's being ignored now, as gas robber barons seek to get rich by inflicting damage more severe than what happened in the coal days. (Take a quick drive up to the anthracite region to see devastation that remains to this day. Something worse — putrid water flowing downstream — is in store for your children.)
Pellegrini's ruling also dealt with another disturbing constitutional problem. "Act 13," it said, "also gives the power of eminent domain to a corporation that is empowered to transport, sell or store natural gas."
Traditionally, eminent domain was a power reserved for government, such as when your house was in the way of plans for a highway, a park or a public sewer system. Under Act 13, it seems that you would have to kiss your house goodbye if a Texas gas industry zillionaire wanted to run a gas line through your property, even if your property was nowhere near a gas well.
Harrisburg's leaders vowed to appeal Pellegrini's ruling, and they must be thanking their lucky stars for the members of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, who have a history of defying the Pennsylvania Constitution when it suits their politically powerful pals, as happened with the gambling casino legislation and other measures.
There is one provision in the Pennsylvania Constitution, however, that I'm sure the Harrisburg power structure appreciates.
Article V, Section 16, says judges must retire when they reach "the age of 70 years."
So Pellegrini will be out on his ear in just three years. What a celebration there will be in Harrisburg — and in Dallas — then.
Paul Carpenter's commentary appears Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays.