New FEMA policy on fracking stalls flood plain buyouts in Wyoming County

First Posted: 8/21/2014

TUNKHANNOCK — The fate of five Wyoming County properties devastated by flooding and approved for federal buyouts hangs in limbo nearly three years after storms swept through the region.

A policy issued May 5 by the Federal Emergency Management Agency prohibits buyout money from being spent on homesteads subject to hydraulic fracturing. Such is the case for these five in Wyoming County.

At a roundtable discussion organized by U.S. Rep. Lou Barletta, R-Hazleton, Wednesday in Tunkhannock, EMA Director Gene Dziak told federal officials he has nearly 30 properties ruined by flood waters during hurricanes Lee and Irene approved to be bought out.

But five of them are deadlocked because the owners do not want to give up real or potential natural gas leases below their land that would be shut down in a buyout.

“I have five houses that are right now in need of mitigation,” Dziak said. “We really could use some direction here … I have the money; we’re set; we’re ready to go, but I don’t want to have you come back to me and say ‘Hey, you owe us $457,000.’”

If FEMA finds money for buyouts was improperly spent — such as if the original landowners maintain leases with gas companies — it can demand that money to be repaid.

For privacy reasons, Dziak did not identify what properties that remain on the fence.

The agency has authority to grant money through its Hazard Mitigation Grant Program. The program has been proven to save money over time by getting homes that are repeatedly hit by disasters off the market.

Barletta, along with six gas industry industry folks and state and local officials, grilled FEMA’s deputy administrator for mitigation, Roy E. Wright, for nearly two hours on how this new policy could prevent landowners from relinquishing their prone homes.

Wright explained FEMA requires a cost/benefit analysis. The EMA can buy eligible homes as long as benefit exceeds the cost. This would make it hard for FEMA to pay for a property considering its value with a gas lease included, which could add millions to the price.

FEMA requires municipalities to leave the bought-out property undeveloped as “open space.” Municipalities also may not use the property to generate profit per grant guidelines.

Wright argued it has always been the case that, in order to qualify, landowners must hand over a clean title with no leases to surface or subsurface rights.

Existing leases must be “extinguished,” before the buyout, Wright said.

Kevin J. Moody, an attorney and vice president for the Pennsylvania Independent Oil & Gas Association, said FEMA is using its own interpretation of the law to ignore technology that has not been found environmentally benign or harmful either.

“They are hiding behind these statutes … behind an interpretation of these to justify what they want to do,” Moody said. “And it’s not an interpretation that they need to do, but for what they want to accomplish.”

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