Grant Township residents fighting for Community Rights recently prevailed on several key motions in court. Corporate lawyers for Pennsylvania General Energy Company (PGE) failed in their motions, which sought to evade discovery and accountability.
In 2014, Grant Township enacted a Community Bill of Rights ordinance drafted with assistance from the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund (CELDF). The ordinance prohibited PGE’s proposed injection well as a violation of the community’s rights. Within weeks of enacting the ordinance, PGE sued the Township in federal court. PGE claimed that the Township was violating the corporation’s constitutional rights and lacked the authority to ban the well.
CELDF is providing legal counsel to the Township, a local citizen’s group, and the Little Mahoning Watershed to defend the law.
In October 2015, Magistrate Judge Susan Paradise Baxter, of the Western District Court of Pennsylvania, stripped out parts of the Township’s ordinance. However, three weeks later, the residents of Grant Township reinstated those provisions by a township-wide vote enacting a new home rule charter.
Litigation is ongoing over certain provisions of the original Community Bill of Rights ordinance that was enacted in 2014, while the new home rule charter remains in force.
Judge Baxter agreed with the Township that PGE must turn over documents and information related to their proposed injection well. PGE had been attempting to evade releasing those documents. With Judge Baxter’s new orders, the court has extended the case until 2017.
In addition, Judge Baxter previously denied attempts to intervene in the case by the local citizen’s group, the East Run Hellbenders Society, and a local ecosystem, the Little Mahoning Watershed. Those groups have now appealed the judge’s decision to the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals.
Last week, a panel of judges for the 3rd Circuit issued a preliminary opinion upholding Judge Baxter’s ruling. That decision will now be presented to the full 3rd Circuit Court for review.
Meanwhile, the Hellbenders and the Watershed filed a motion with the District Court to halt legal proceedings until the 3rd Circuit reaches a decision on the appeal. Judge Baxter granted that motion, making this the first time that an ecosystem, arguing for its own rights to exist and to flourish, has prevailed on a motion in court.
“Who speaks for the trees?” asked Judy Wanchisn, Grant Township resident and member of the East Run Hellbenders Society. “We’re all a part of nature here in Grant Township, and it’s about time the courts recognize that our watershed deserves rights and protections just as humans do.”
Grant Township Supervisor Stacy Long stated, “PGE has a deep and ugly history of environmental permit violations, and yet is hell-bent on slapping this township in an attempt to overturn our democratically-enacted law that protects our rights and our safety against the permanent storage of toxic frack waste. The people of Grant Township know, and as this litigation shows, this fight is not just a fight over an injection well, it is a fight for democracy and fundamental and inalienable civil rights.”