Should a liquor distributor be allowed to sue a “dry county” over lost profits?
Should a tobacco company be allowed to sue a municipality over profits lost due to a city smoking ban?
Should an oil and gas company be allowed to sue a township over profits lost, due to that community banning local disposal of the company’s waste products?
In Pennsylvania, that’s exactly what has happened. The township has been ordered to pay the corporation for its unrealized “savings,” and CELDF attorneys – defending the democratically-enacted community ban on fracking waste disposal – have been sanctioned by the court for “frivolous” defense.
The industry calls the decision “a win for the rule of law over people who want to take the law into their own hands.”
In 2014, Grant Township, Pennsylvania, (population 741) enacted a Community Bill of Rights banning fracking wastewater injection wells as a violation of the community’s democratic and environmental rights. Pennsylvania General Energy Company (PGE) wanted to place the wastewater well within the township boundaries, justifying it “could save the company approximately $2-million per year.” PGE sued Grant to overturn the ban. They claimed it was a violation of the corporation’s constitutional rights.
The Pennsylvania Independent Oil and Gas Association (PIOGA) quickly moved to intervene, joining PGE.
CELDF, which assisted the township in drafting the Community Bill of Rights, also represented the township in defending the ordinance. In addition, a local community group moved to intervene in the federal lawsuit on behalf of their local ecology. Rights of Nature was included in the ordinance language, and the group sought to defend the rights of the watershed to “exist, flourish, and naturally evolve.”
The federal judge in the case, Susan Paradise Baxter, allowed PIOGA to join PGE in fighting the ordinance, but denied community members’ intervention on behalf of the watershed. She overturned portions of the ordinance.
“The language of the ordinance itself runs afoul of constitutional protections afforded corporations such as PGE, and attempts to insulate Grant Township from clashes with current state and federal law,” the judge stated.
The ruling said, in effect, the township exceeded its allowable authority by passing an ordinance to enact stricter controls on certain activities than what is permitted by federal or state laws.
Of course, by extension of this logic, a local government should not have the right to enact speed limits through its community that are lower than the maximum speed limit set by the state.
Undeterred by the judges’ ruling, the people of Grant Township responded by immediately passing a Home Rule Charter, reincorporating all of the original Community Bill of Rights provisions into their primary governing document.
The federal lawsuit continued, however, with Judge Baxter ruling in favor of corporate “rights to profit” in lieu of the community’s right to self-governance.
“The fact that Grant Township had legitimate reasons to pass the ordinance is beside the point,” the judge’s ruling stated. “There is no need to discuss whether the Township’s purported right to local community self-government has been violated. The Township’s policy, as expressed in the Community Bill of Rights ordinance, merits a finding of municipal liability for violation of PGE’s constitutional rights. PGE suffered injury and damages from not being able to operate this well.”
She ordered Grant Township to reimburse PGE for its unearned profits.
PIOGA attorney Kevin Moody called the decision “a win for the rule of law over people who want to take the law into their own hands.”
Unsatisfied with merely having won, PGE then asked the judge to punish CELDF. Judge Baxter complied, sanctioning CELDF attorneys Thomas Linzey and Elizabeth Dunne for “the pursuit of frivolous claims and defenses” that have “vexatiously multiplied the litigation of this matter” and “required the Court and PGE to expend significant time and resources eliminating these baseless claims.”
Grant Township’s Board of Supervisors responded: “It’s Grant Township’s hope that our attorneys will wear this slap as a badge of courage, just as any front-line veteran would wear a scar.”
In addition, the Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection – on the same day it granted a permit for the PGE disposal well – sued Grant Township over the Home Rule Charter ban.
Grant Township Supervisor Stacy Long says champions don’t quit.
"Our community wrote a new constitution, with wide community support and input, to protect our rights and our environment. And now we've been sued, not only by a corporation that wants to profit by dumping toxic waste in our community, but also by our own state 'environmental protection' agency. Our fight continues, but we also hope that the latest shameful actions by the DEP inspire others to stand with us, and stand up in their own communities, against unchecked corporate and state power."
Stand with Grant Township, and champion the people and their community rights. Here’s how:
Here’s what your help can do in 2019:
- $25 covers postage for 100 Common Sense newspapers.
- $50 ensures a community member can attend a Community Rights workshop, teaching the tools needed to confront corporate control and state interference on a powerful single front: people’s and nature’s inalienable rights.
- $100 covers travel expenses for our community organizer to speak at an event educating residents on Community Rights.
- $250 allows us to print and distribute informational handouts on Community Rights and Rights of Nature as tools to protect local communities.
- $500 allows us to provide 10 scholarships to community members to attend a Community Rights workshop.
Images by Mike Belleme