The Standard Speaker: Packer Twp. to revamp biosolids ordinance,
September 5th, 2012
Packer Township no longer has an ordinance that outlaws the use of sewage sludge as soil fertilizer.
But, according to the board of supervisors, a new, stronger ordinance will soon be in place.
The supervisors voted unanimously on Tuesday to rescind a 2008 ordinance that prohibited corporations and farmers from using treated sewage sludge, called biosolids, as ground fertilizer.
Controversial from the start, the ordinance was challenged in court by then-state Attorney General Tom Corbett, who was later elected governor.
The Packer Township Local Control, Sewage Sludge and Chemical Trespass Ordinance was unanimously adopted by the board of supervisors after a township dairy and crop farmer was granted a state Department of Environmental Protection permit to spread biosolids on his 100-acre farm. The boundaries of the farm lie within 75 yards of Still Creek Reservoir, which is a primary source of drinking water for the nearby borough of Tamaqua.
After the ordinance was passed, the farmer asked Corbett to review the township's biosolid law to determine whether it conflicted with existing state laws governing farming.
Corbett returned a decision that the ordinance violated state regulations that prohibit local ordinances from restricting normal agricultural operations.
The supervisors responded by invoking Article 1, Section 2, of the Pennsylvania Constitution, which states that citizens have the "inalienable and indefeasible right to alter, reform or abolish their government in such manner as they may think proper."
The supervisors declared an "inalienable right of local self-government" and approved an amendment to the anti-sludge ordinance that the township would no longer recognize the authority of the attorney general's office to enforce any law that denied "the right to local self-government for the protection of the health, safety and welfare of the community."
Through years of court briefs and motions, the attorney general's office has held its ground that the township ordinance is unauthorized, and the township has held its self-governance stand.
In 2010, the Commonwealth Court ruled the matter should be reviewed by the full court.
Board Chairman William Swineberg said the case is scheduled for court in January, but supervisors have decided, on the advice of attorneys from the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund CELDF), to revoke the existing ordinance and prepare to adopt a stronger version of the law.
CELDF has provided cost-free legal council to the township in defense of the original ordinance.
"It's going to court in January and there is no way we are going to win this," Swineberg said. "But we are going to pass another one."
Swineberg said the township cannot afford the anticipated cost of expert witness testimony in court, which could range from $60,000 to $80,000.
Rather than expend a great deal of the township's limited resources on a costly court battle, Swineberg said the board has received two new versions of a similar ordinance to consider for adoption.
One of the new ordinances has been prepared by CELDF attorneys, the other is a version of an ordinance that was previously adopted in East Brunswick Township in Schuylkill County, where citizens and local elected officials fought a biosolids battle similar to the Packer Township fight.
"We're going to review them both and decide which one to adopt," Swineberg said.