CELDF

Observing Revolution: Pennsylvania

The following is an excerpt from the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund’s End of Year 2020 newsletter “Moments of Transition.” Email info@celdf.org to receive a hard and/or electronic copy of our newsletters.

This dispatch from Pennsylvania is a continuation from last newsletter’s Observing Revolution theme. 

Communities have been galvanized by existential threats to sacred and critical freshwater systems. Today, with help from CELDF, a community in Pennsylvania has engaged local lawmaking to successfully resist corporate contamination of water. Despite years of legal attacks by the private Pennsylvania General Energy corporation, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), and a smear campaign by an oil industry attack group, local residents of Grant Township, Indiana County have reasserted and continued to defend their local lawmaking. In March 2020, their resistance successfully compelled the first-ever enforcement of a local Rights of Nature law, when the PA DEP revoked a frack waste permit citing Grant Township’s local law. That development came one week before the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency was effectively suspended by the federal government.

Their efforts are not over, nor isolated. Grant Township sits on the shoulders of dozens of Pennsylvania communities who have advanced the movement for over 20 years.

In 2006, Tamaqua Borough, Pennsylvania, became the very first place on non-indigenous reservation land to recognize the Rights of Nature. It banned the dumping of toxic sewage sludge as a violation of the Rights of Nature and the peoples’ right to a clean environment.

In 2010, Pittsburgh banned fracking while declaring that corporations that violate the ban or that seek to drill in the city would not be afforded “personhood” rights under the U.S. or Pennsylvania Constitution, nor will they be afforded protections under the Commerce Clause or Contracts Clause under the federal or state constitution. This showed the important role large cities can play in this movement.

In 2013, Highland Township, Pennsylvania, banned fracking waste injection wells. It was then sued by Seneca Resources in 2015. Residents doubled down, and pushed for and passed a local charter in 2016. Then, in 2017, the DEP sued the community for banning the fracking waste injection well, arguing that the community had no such authority to protect its water. Eventually, local officials who were sympathetic to the industry and not to the people of Highland agreed to not enforce most of the provisions of the popularly-adopted local charter. Every level of government came crashing down on the people: the federal courts, the state DEP, and even the community’s own supervisors. The township people provoked multi-pronged repression from the state and corporate interests.

Meanwhile, another community, Todd Township, was busy working with CELDF to craft a radical vision for sustainable local agriculture. That law banned threats from the corporate agriculture industry while legalizing sustainable practices. At the urging of community members, township supervisors passed the local law in 2018. In 2019, the Pennsylvania Attorney General threatened to sue the township, ultimately intimidating local officials into repealing it.

All the while, a home rule charter amendment banning fracking, injection wells, and pipelines still stands in West Chester Borough, Pennsylvania. A key leader in this effort, Dianne Herrin, went on to become Mayor of the borough, and in November 2020 was elected State Representative.

Photo by Ryan Stone on Unsplash

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