WASHINGTON, D.C. – U.S. Senator Bob Casey (D-PA) is pushing the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to work with Wyoming, Luzerne and Susquehanna County authorities to end the delay of buyouts of homes damaged in last year’s flooding. Buyouts allow homeowners to relocate to safer areas, minimizing the potential impact of future disasters on vulnerable areas, but some buyouts have been stalled by administrative hurdles.
“Bureaucratic hurdles should not stand in the way of recovery for those still trying to return to normalcy after last year’s flooding,” said Senator Casey. “FEMA should redouble its efforts to work with Pennsylvania’s County officials to eliminate the barriers preventing these buyouts from moving forward.”
Wyoming, Luzerne and Susquehanna counties have already submitted applications for the acquisition of the damaged properties. However, the buyout process has stalled as a result of circumstances involving mineral rights and gas leases on the properties. In these unique instances homeowners have no clear path forward to resolve the situation, so Senator Casey is pushing FEMA to quickly resolve the issue with local and state officials.
The full text of Senator Casey’s letter to FEMA is below:
September 26, 2012
W. Craig Fugate
Federal Emergency Management Agency
500 C Street SW, Room 700
Washington, DC 20472
Dear Mr. Fugate:
As you know, communities across Pennsylvania are continuing to recover from last year’s historic flooding. Each of our affected counties has taken significant steps forward, including submitting applications for the acquisition of properties that were damaged or destroyed by Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee under FEMA’s Hazard Mitigation Grant Program. In order for our homeowners to successfully reestablish themselves we must ensure that these acquisitions are processed as quickly and efficiently as possible.
It has come to my attention that FEMA’s process for acquiring damaged properties has significantly slowed in certain counties in Pennsylvania due to unique circumstances involving outstanding gas leases and mineral rights on several of the most severely damaged properties. The problem is most pronounced in Luzerne, Wyoming and Susquehanna Counties in northeastern Pennsylvania. Incidentally, these counties were among the hardest hit by Irene and Lee.
While I recognize that FEMA is attempting to work through these issues, I strongly urge your personal involvement in bringing this matter to a quick resolution so that the acquisition process can go forward without further delay.
It is my understanding that the problems encountered in these counties are due in part to FEMA guidance indicating that a property is ineligible for acquisition if that property has any mineral leases associated with it. FEMA has expressed concern that the owners of mineral rights or gas leases may seek to exercise those rights in the future and has instructed counties to identify and extinguish any existing property interests on these sites.
Three primary factors appear to support the conclusion that exercising these rights is practically unlikely or legally impermissible. First, my office has been informed that in many cases the mineral leases on the properties in question do not convey surface rights for mineral extraction. This fact appears to preclude development on the surface of these sites. Second, county officials have indicated that local and state ordinances prohibit development activities on many of these sites.
Finally, identifying and extinguishing the mineral rights has proven to be a daunting and costly task. In many cases, mineral rights were assigned decades ago to entities that no longer exist or are not in a position to readily exercise these rights. Given these unique circumstances, FEMA should work with local officials to move the acquisition process forward.
The significant challenges associated with searching titles and identifying leaseholders in these counties is particularly troublesome. County officials report that they have made a good faith effort to ascertain the identity of these leaseholders in an effort to extinguish their rights. In fact, counties have invested considerable time, money and resources to conduct title searches designed to ascertain leaseholders. However, county officials have encountered significant hurdles in completing these searches. Determining ownership of these holdings is a costly, time consuming process that has often resulted in identifying companies that no longer exist.
Affected homeowners have no clear path forward to resolve the situation. These constituents have been instructed that their acquisitions will not be moved forward unless ownership of these gas leases and mineral rights has been returned from the holding company. Homeowners who have suffered due to flooding continue to endure hardship due to these delays. Simply stated, this problem needs to be resolved so that the acquisition process can go forward.
To that end, I urge you to personally work with local authorities to resolve this issue and complete the acquisitions as soon as possible. I ask that applicable consideration be given to the unique circumstances in these counties, including the difficulties associated with identifying leaseholders and the express legal prohibitions that restrict development on the properties in question. Gas leases and mineral rights that are required to remain inactive under state or local ordinances should not prevent these critical acquisitions from moving forward.
If you have any questions or would like to discuss this matter further, please do not hesitate to contact me directly. I look forward to continue working with you on this matter.
Robert P. Casey, Jr.
United States Senator