Grant Township Wins Key Motions in Fight for Civil and Environmental Rights

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.”

Rural Pennsylvanians Say Fracking ‘Just Ruined Everything’

The Eakins told the state environmental agency about their bad water nearly seven years ago and hoped for a quick resolution. Like thousands of others who live in the natural gas-rich Marcellus Shale, however, they learned their hopes were misplaced.

Since 2007, at least 2,800 water-related complaints have been investigated by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection’s Oil and Gas Program.

While regulators try to catch up to natural gas exploration, some residents of the state have gone months, even years, without access to clean water at their homes.

“What I tell people is, don’t think that there’s somebody up there [in Harrisburg] watching out for you, because they’re not,” said David Brown, an environmental health scientist at the nonprofit Southwest Pennsylvania Environmental Health Project. “That’s a pretty sobering message, and it’s not one I would think I would give in many states but Pennsylvania.” (The project has received funding from The Heinz Endowments, as has the Center for Public Integrity).

In an analysis of more than 200 complaints, Public Herald identified the many ways cases were being closed prematurely or minimized. In some, the DEP claimed pre-drill tests proved that complainants’ water had been bad all along. (In fact, these tests had been done after drilling started.) In others, it diverted complaints from the Office of Oil and Gas Management to divisions within the agency such as the Environmental Cleanup Program. This kept the DEP from classifying the cases as energy-related.

Sitting in her living room in Rea, she cried remembering how she felt when the doctors told her she could go home. “Am I going to be going home and bathing in that water again?” she asked them. “I said, ‘I don’t want to go home.’ ”

YES! Magazine features Grant Township in fight with gas company

A tiny community sitting on a 27-square-mile piece of Western Pennsylvania wanted to send a big message to the energy company planning to deposit toxic fracking wastewater under its neighborhoods. And its 700 residents wanted it to be perfectly legal for them to loudly object.

Grant Township had seen what happens when people nationwide take to the streets to protest bullying corporations: Arrests. Lots of them.

So Grant Township planned ahead…Read the full article here. 

Tim DeChristopher Tweets about Grant Township

And Grant Township is making news on Twitter. Follow @dechristopher on Twitter.

DeChristopher is an Activist working for fossil fuel and prison abolition. Featured in award winning @Bidder70film. Founder, Climate Disobedience Center @ClimateDisobey.

In this passionate anti-fracking town, civil disobedience just became protected civic duty

News of Grant’s new order sanctioning citizen direct action continues to reach nationwide audiences.

Order sanctioning citizen direct action called “one of the boldest moves to stop the natural gas industry’s attacks on our communities, climate and democracy.”

Read the full article in Common Dream, here 

Grant legalizes civil disobedience

Last night [May 3], Grant Township in Indiana County, Pennsylvania made a bit of history. The municipality passed a local law legalizing civil disobedience. According to the new law, anyone who commits a nonviolent act of civil disobedience in order to protect the community’s rights under its Home Rule Charter has the legal right to do so – but not only that – the law also prohibits “any private or public actor from bringing criminal charges or filing any civil or other criminal action against those participating in nonviolent direct action.”

Read the complete article here …



Grant Township pass law to legalize direct action to stop frack wastewater injection wells within the Township

May 4, 2016: Grant Township Supervisors passed a first-in-the-nation law that legalizes direct action to stop frack wastewater injection wells within the Township. Pennsylvania General Energy Company (PGE) has sued the Township to overturn a local democratically-enacted law that prohibits injection wells.

If a court does not uphold the people’s right to stop corporate activities threatening the well-being of the community, the ordinance codifies that, “any natural person may then enforce the rights and prohibitions of the charter through direct action.” Further, the ordinance states that any nonviolent direct action to enforce their Charter is protected, “prohibit[ing] any private or public actor from bringing criminal charges or filing any civil or other criminal action against those participating in nonviolent direct action.”

Grant Township Supervisor Stacy Long explained, “We’re tired of being told by corporations and our so-called environmental regulatory agencies that we can’t stop this injection well! This isn’t a game. We’re being threatened by a corporation with a history of permit violations, and that corporation wants to dump toxic frack wastewater into our Township.”

Long continued, “I live here, and I was also elected to protect the health and safety of this Township. I will do whatever it takes to provide our residents with the tools and protections they need to nonviolently resist aggressions like those being proposed by PGE.”

In 2013, residents in Grant Township learned that PGE was applying for permits that would legalize the injection well. Despite hearings, public comments, and permit appeals demonstrating the residents’ opposition to the project, the federal Environmental Protection Agency issued a permit to PGE.

Finding themselves with no other options, residents requested the help of the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund (CELDF). Grant Township Supervisors, with broad community support, passed a CELDF-drafted Community Bill of Rights ordinance in June 2014. The ordinance established rights to clean air and water, the right to local community self-government, and the rights of nature. The proposed injection well is prohibited as a violation of those rights.

PGE promptly sued the Township, claiming that it had a “right” to inject within the Township.

The case is ongoing. Last year, in October 2015, the judge invalidated parts of the ordinance, stating that the Township lacked authority to ban injection wells. Three weeks later, in November 2015, residents voted in a new Home Rule Charter. The rights-based Charter reinstated the ban on injection wells by a 2-to-1 vote, overriding the judge’s decision.

CELDF assisted the community with the drafting of the Charter and is representing the Township in the ongoing litigation with PGE.

Grant Township Supervisor and Chairman Jon Perry summed up the situation by saying, “Sides need to be picked. Should a polluting corporation have the right to inject toxic waste, or should a community have the right to protect itself?”

Perry continued, “I was elected to serve this community, and to protect the rights in our Charter voted in by the people I represent. If we have to physically and nonviolently stop the trucks from coming in because the courts fail us, we will do so. And we invite others to stand with us.”

Those others are showing up. Tim DeChristopher, co-founder of the Climate Disobedience Center, stated, “I’m encouraged to see an entire community and its elected officials asserting their rights to defend their community from the assaults of the fossil fuel industry, and I know there are plenty of folks in the climate movement ready to stand with Grant Township.”

CELDF community organizer Chad Nicholson has been working with the community since 2014. He added, “In our country’s history, we celebrate people standing up to challenge unjust laws. The American Revolution, abolition, women’s suffrage, the labor and civil rights movements, marriage equality – all required people to take action resisting illegitimate laws. All required creating new and more just laws in their place. We applaud the people of Grant Township for taking action as their community is threatened, and asserting their rights. It is an honor to stand with them.”

If you are interested in supporting the efforts in Grant Township, please contact Stacy Long, or 724.840.7214.

Hellbenders awarded Peggy Clark Grassroots Environmental Leadership Award

On May 18, 2015, the League of Women Voters of Indiana County presented the fourth annual Peggy Clark Grassroots Environmental Leadership award to the East Run Hellbenders Society. This award recognizes grassroots citizens, groups, or businesses who show exemplary leadership and active participation in policy issues that involve protecting or pre-serving our environment. The Peggy Clark Grassroots Environmental Leadership award was established in honor of a longtime Indiana County grassroots environmental activist and League member, Peggy Clark, who has had a long-term interest in environmental issues, especially issues related to energy extraction. It is awarded annually.

The East Run Hellbenders Society received the group award. In their short existence, the Hellbender organization has compiled a remarkable and impressive list of accomplishments and is just the type of organization that the League likes to honor. They were recognized for their work on protecting the safety, health, and well-being of the citizens of Grant Township by opposing the development of a waste water injection well in their township.

In addition, they were instrumental in working with the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund to develop and defend a Community Bill of Rights. Chad Nicholson of the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund CELDF, presented the League of Women voters with information about his organization’s work as well as the concept of Home Rule, which brings significant changes to the structure of local governments by transferring authority in municipal affairs from state law to local charters that are adopted and amended by the voters.

A Home Rule Charter was subsequently adopted by the residents of Grant Township in Indiana County in the November 2015 election by a two to one margin. This is the country’s first municipal charter establishing a local bill of rights. The Grant Bill of Rights codifies environmental and democratic rights and bans frack wastewater injection wells as a violation of those rights. With this community rights movement, Grant is standing up to a system of law that forces frack waste wells and other practices into communities and protects corporations over people, communities and nature. They are saying to government and corporations, “We’re no longer willing to be fracked, poisoned, and polluted.” Grant’s Charter is the first that is written entirely on the basis of asserting and protecting rights.


Rights of Nature

Though industry lawyers are accustomed to involvement from conservation groups and others affected by alleged environmental harms, this was far from a standard intervenor motion. The filing came from the environment itself — the Little Mahoning Creek and all the water and land ecosystems that feed into it. The motion — which also lists a more traditional party, the grass-roots East Run Hellbenders Society — invokes “rights of nature,” a doctrine that purports to give certain legal rights to elements of nature, including trees, mountains and entire ecosystems.  More …

Clean Stream Law

The state environmental agency had never examined injection well permits through the prism of the Clean Stream Law before, said DEP spokeswoman Amanda Witman.

When Wanchisn’s group made their case, “in an abundance of caution DEP rescinded the permit,” Witman said. More … 

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