The Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund is based in Pennsylvania. It’s here where we got our start. We have engaged dozens of municipalities, local officials, state legislators and long-term movement-building in the state.
Today, our direct engagement includes assistance in Grant Township, Indiana County and Clara Township, Potter County, as well as grassroots organizing with elected officials and community groups in pushing for transformative constitutional change in the state.
Building Locally, Toward Visionary Constitutional Change
For years, the Pennsylvania General Assembly has obstructed social movements and interfered in local democracy on behalf of corporate interests. From the minimum wage, factory farming, oil and gas extraction, paid sick leave, and many other issues, the General Assembly has repeatedly passed legislation to arbitrarily remove local control when it’s to the benefit of corporate campaign donors.
When communities take a stand to protect ecosystems, workers, water, or otherwise to challenge the centralized power structure that favors corporate interests, the state government quickly mobilizes, alongside corporate interests and their law firms to come down on those communities.
More people are wising up to this pattern of control, and coalitions are growing to switch up the power dynamic.
Toward this end, in 2019, a state constitutional amendment was introduced into the House of Representatives of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. The amendment is building support in 2021. The 2019 amendment language included:
“The right to local self-government includes, without limitation, the power to enact local laws: (1) protecting health, safety and welfare by establishing the rights of people, their communities and nature and by securing those rights using prohibitions and other means; and (2) establishing, defining, altering or eliminating the rights, powers and duties of corporations and other business entities operating or seeking to operate in the community.”
The “Local Self-Government Amendment” places the rights of people and the planet over the interests of private corporations, and empowers communities to heighten state protections for civil, human and ecosystem rights. Organizing and relationship-building for this game-changing amendment have included a statewide outreach campaign by and for local officials.
For two decades, CELDF has worked alongside hundreds of communities to advance rights-based laws protecting communities from factory farming, land application of sewage sludge, fracking, and other harms, by recognizing democratic and environmental rights. In Pennsylvania, communities joined together to form the Pennsylvania Community Rights Network (PACRN) in 2010, which partnered with CELDF and others to draft language for the state amendment.
The PACRN continues to support local community groups with the sharing of lessons learned and horizontal support.
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 while citing Grant Township’s local law.
Grant Township has been fighting a frack waste injection well since 2013, and democratically enacted a Home Rule Charter in 2015 banning frack waste. Grant Township has been sued in state and federal court — by the industry as well as the PA DEP — and their case is heading to trial.
Our work in Grant Township, Indiana County, has been profiled in the award-winning documentary film “Invisible Hand,” RollingStone, and numerous other publications across the nation and globe.
For further reading about Grant Township, check out this sampling of resources:
- Grant Township legalizes non-violent civil disobedience to protect local ecosystems and freshwater
- Grant Township responds to courts by defiantly passing another law
- Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection decides to sue Grant Township
- Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection Attacks 4-Year-Old Community Water Protection Law
- BLOG: When We Fight, We Win
- Essay: All is Not Well in Grant Township
The ongoing work in Pennsylvania builds on the shoulders of 25 years of organizing and rabble rousing that has engaged dozens of campaigns, municipal law-making, court fights and defiance to corporate and state collusion.
It’s impossible to include it all here, however, below you will find some highlights and links to further reading.
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 courage 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 eventually 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.
These are just sampling.
In 2021 nearly half of all registered voters in Clara Township signed on in support of a measure to consider Home Rule powers for the township. Concerned Citizens for Clara Township (CCCT) initiated the effort after learning Roulette Oil and Gas LLC (ROGC) applied for a Class II Injection Well Permit.
Residents of Clara Township rely on private wells or springs, which are susceptible to contamination by leaks and spills of wastewater during transportation, storage and injection. Once injected underground, waste has been known to migrate miles through natural cracks and fissures.
The mountain in Clara where the proposed injection well would be located drains toward streams that feed the Upper Allegheny River, which provides over 500,000 people with their drinking water. The Allegheny joins the Monongahela River in Pittsburgh and together they form the Ohio River, a drinking water source for more than five million people.
“We’re proud to work with Clara Township on this effort. This isn’t just about frack waste, it’s about the future of Pennsylvania communities. Who gets to make the most important decisions where we live?”
Chad Nicholson, CELDF organizer
Localized Historical Analysis
CELDF’s Chad Nicholson and Ben Price have developed a “Pennsylvania Community Rights Cookbook.” It is a comprehensive text developed for the Pennsylvania Community Rights Workshop. It’s a Pennsylvania-specific intensive educational document that traces the development of centralized governance from colonial times to the present, and the gradual extinction of community self-determination in municipalities of the Commonwealth. Starting with the highly democratic (though misogynistic and paternalistic at its core) 1776 state constitution, and tracing the anti-democratic changes made to that constitution through distinct historic periods, the curriculum arrives at our current situation, where corporate actors defeat community priorities with ease, backed enthusiastically by the courts and legislature of Pennsylvania.
The curriculum is available in PDF format or in print. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org.