Grant Township Stands Up to Intimidation Tactics 


Ben Price
Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund
National Organizing Director

MERCERSBURG, PA: An oil and gas industry lawsuit – seeking to override a community’s ban on frack waste injection wells, and simultaneously discipline the lawyers working to defend the community – has been settled.

The Pennsylvania Independent Oil and Gas Association (PIOGA) and Pennsylvania General Energy (PGE) sued Grant Township, PA, in federal court to overturn its 2014 ban on frack waste injection wells. Such wells are known to introduce radioactive waste and other chemicals (undisclosed by corporations), as well as cause earthquakes, in the communities where they are sited.

The rural Indiana County community passed the ban to protect its only source of drinking water from the risk of permanent contamination. The township law secured the right of the people to protect their water, and the environmental rights of the people and ecosystems in the community to be protected from such threats.

The lawsuit sought to overturn the community’s democratically enacted prohibition on the wells.  PIOGA and PGE argued that preventing oil and gas corporations from dumping frack waste in the community amounted to violation of the corporation’s civil rights, and the attorneys’ defense of the law to harassment. Therefore, they argued, the attorneys must be financially sanctioned for defending the community, and PGE sought to compel Grant Township to pay for the money the company spent to sue the community.

As the court and the corporation discussed how to punish Grant and its legal team – from the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund (CELDF) – the people of the township voted for a new municipal home rule charter, in 2015. That charter stands and continues to prohibit frack waste wells.

Grant and CELDF faced difficult choices. Grant faced a fee amounting to over $102,000, and Grant Township’s attorneys, supported by CELDF, faced sanctions of $52,000. On appeal, PGE sought sanctions of more than $600,000 against the attorneys and CELDF.  After months of legal negotiations, CELDF and Grant decided the financially prudent decision was to settle for $75,000. CELDF will pay the entire settlement. Grant will pay nothing. This settlement does not allow injection wells to be sited in the township.

But it is outrageous that the judge and industry have taken these actions.

An assertion by PIOGA and PGE that novel and visionary legal arguments amount to harassment is particularly problematic. On this point, a former president of the Center for Constitutional Rights filed a declaration in opposition to PGE’s motion for sanctions. In it he wrote that such sanctions serve “to ‘chill’ the willingness of attorneys who seek to change unjust and illegitimate existing law.” For example, the declaration points to the abolitionist lawyer Salmon Chase, who challenged slavery and fugitive slave laws in the courts.

This issue is echoed by budget bill language passed by Ohio in 2019, in response to the Lake Erie Bill of Rights. That language seeks to limit what arguments in favor of the people and nature are admissible in court.

Neither Grant nor CELDF are backing down.

Contrary to what the oil and gas industry may try to claim, it was the industry that caused any financial risk for Grant. A company attempted to force in an injection well against the will of the people who live in Grant. CELDF assisted the township in protecting its drinking water. The industry then sued the township and threatened it financially. No one but the oil and gas industry is to blame.

“Irresponsible extractive industries can be expected to use intimidation and fear tactics,” said CELDF National Organizing Director Ben Price. “If anything, this makes it all the more clear that the crisis of our time calls for fearless challenges to the unjust laws that protect abusive corporate power from democracy.”

Grant Township is now working with other communities, and state legislators, to advance state constitutional change in Pennsylvania.

About CELDF — Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund 

The Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund (CELDF) is building a movement for Community Rights and the Rights of Nature to advance democratic, economic, social, and environmental rights – building upward from the grassroots to the state, federal, and international level.

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