In June, the United States Conference of Mayors was held in Indianapolis. More than thirty mayors of U.S. cities, coming from fourteen states, signed onto a letter calling on state legislatures to “affirm the ability of localities to protect the health and quality of life of residents against the widespread expansion of industrial fracking into their communities.”
Organizers and staff at CELDF were surprised and delighted by the news. The mayors’ stance reflects a commitment to community rights that is central to our partnerships with municipalities across the country. We team up with local leaders and their constituents to challenge state preemption, which is used by state government to block local laws enacted to protect the rights, the health, and the quality of life of community members.
Our work involves teaming up with local leaders and their constituents to challenge state preemption
Corporate Interests = Bad Behavior
In recent decades, corporate interests, including those in the fracking industry, have concentrated their lobbying clout to influence state lawmakers. The result: Our own government enacts legislation that strips our local authority to govern the behavior of powerful industries when they come to our communities.
As well, state lawmakers across the land are busy creating statutory cover for the regular violation of community rights by corporations engaged in dangerous activities. First, the states “permit” (legalize) harmful practices, like fracking. Then, they forbid local officials from living up to their public obligation to protect the health, safety, and welfare of the communities who elected them.
The people and local public servants live with the impacts of this bad behavior. They understand at a basic level the injustice that is legalized in this way. As the mayors wrote in their letter:
“We are strongly opposed to efforts by state legislatures, and state and federal officials limiting the ability of communities to protect themselves from the harms of industrial fracking.”
Pittsburgh Trail Blazes Community Rights to Ban Fracking
One of the signatories to the mayors’ letter to state legislators was Bill Peduto of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. In 2010, Peduto was among the nine City Council members who voted unanimously to enact the Pittsburgh Community Bill of Rights ordinance. This was the first time a major U.S. city secured a handful of rights reserved by the people, and banned any new extraction of natural gas within the City as a violation of those rights.
Pittsburgh’s Community Bill of Rights enumerates a clear statement of the right of local community self-government. Further, it states that the right of self-government is free from state preemption or corporate interference when the locality engages in the legal protection of fundamental rights. In addition, the rights-based ordinance enumerates other rights, including the right to clean water, pure air, and freedom from toxic trespass.
Significantly, Pittsburgh City Council adopted this law against the advice of the City Law Director and in the face of state law preempting local regulation of the oil and gas industry. The Council concluded that the protection of basic rights is not and cannot be preempted by state regulatory law.
Despite industry threats of immediate litigation against Pittsburgh if the Community Bill of Rights became law, there has been no legal action against the City since November of 2010 when it was enacted.
Community Rights Replicated
As a result of Pittsburgh’s lead, counties, townships, cities, and boroughs in numerous states followed suit, working with CELDF to assert community rights over corporate privileges and state-issued permits. Like the mayors who signed the letter to their state legislators, we at CELDF believe affected communities must have legal authority through their local governments to protect themselves against the harms associated with fracking.
We go a step further, recognizing that there are countless other industrial and corporate harms over which many communities struggle daily. Thus close to 200 such communities have partnered with CELDF to draft and enact Community Bills of Rights that shield their rights against violation by state-permitted activities such as water-mining, invasive GMO crops, factory “farming,” land “fertilization” with toxic sludges, injection of frack waste into the ground, and others.
Taking a Stand for Rights
It is truly encouraging to see mayors of conscience take a stance demanding that those affected by fracking and related activities must have authority to decide if they’ll be allowed. The mayors were clear on this point. They wrote:
“We believe that all communities should have the right to decide whether, where, and how industrial fracking operations – including not only well pads, but waste disposal facilities and all related infrastructure – happen within their borders.”
They went on to say:
“It is no surprise that a growing number of communities are moving to halt or regulate fracking within their borders. The notion that our communities have the right to govern on issues and activities that threaten public health or the quality of life of their residents has a long tradition in law.”
We at CELDF couldn’t agree more. CELDF plays a unique role in pushing back against the undemocratic trend unfolding across the country. We invite community members and local officials to engage us in a conversation about what they might do in their counties and municipalities to elevate the rights of community members above the priorities of for-profit corporations and the undemocratic preemptions of corporate-friendly legislators. Our free and low-cost services are available to communities with a commitment to the rights of people and the natural environment. We’d be happy to discuss next steps with you. Contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.