Highland Township Adopts Community Bill of Rights That Bans Toxic Injection Wells

by: Posted on: April 02, 2013

By Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund, CELDF.org

(January 9, 2013) This evening, the Board of Supervisors of Highland Township in Elk County, Pennsylvania, unanimously adopted an ordinance that establishes a community Bill of Rights, and forbids corporations “to deposit, store. ‘treat,’ inject or process waste water, ‘produced water,’ ‘frack’ water, brine or other materials, chemicals or by-products that have been used in the extraction of shale gas onto or into the land, air, or waters within Highland Township.” This prohibition specifically applies to disposal injection wells.

The ordinance recognizes rights to pure water, clean air, a sustainable energy future, the recognition that the people of Highland at all times enjoy and retain “an inalienable and indefeasible right to selfgovernance in the community where they reside.” It also recognizes natural communities and ecosystems have “inalienable and fundamental rights to exist and flourish within Highland Township,”and that “Residents of the Township, along with their municipality, shall possess legal standing to enforce those rights on behalf of those natural communities and ecosystems.”

In December of 2010, the Township went on the record supporting Pittsburgh’s ban on fracking, but until now had taken no action to protect Highland Township from the process. At the time, Seneca Resources Corporation, a division of National Fuel Gas, was operating two Marcellus Shale frack wells in the Township. The Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund (CELDF) was alerted to concerns over the planned introduction of waste-disposal injection wells by Seneca when community members and officers of the Highland Township Municipal Authority contacted us in the summer of 2012 and asked for help. Community members circulated petitions and submitted hundreds of signatures to the Board of Supervisors asking them to enact a Community Bill of Rights. As 2012 came to a close, residents worked with CELDF to finalize ordinance language, and the Township Supervisors voted to advertise the proposal prior to a public hearing and final vote.

The general provisions of the proposed Ordinance:

1) Establish a Community Bill of Rights enumerating a right to pure water, clean air, rights of natural communities and ecosystems, freedom from chemical trespass, a sustainable energy future, and to local community self-government;

2) Make it unlawful in Highland Township for any person to use a corporation to deposit, store, “treat.,” inject or process waste water, “produced” water, “frack” water, brine or other materials, chemicals or by-products that have been used in the extraction of shale gas onto or into the land, air, waters, or public roads within Highland Township;

3) Remove certain legal powers and privileges from any corporation that violates the prohibitions of this Ordinance;

4) Nullify permits ostensibly “legalizing” the violation of rights secured by this Ordinance;

5) Prevent representatives of corporations in violation of the prohibitions of this Ordinance from subordinating the rights of Highland Township residents to the privileges and powers of corporations by wielding state preemptive laws against citizens of Highland Township;

6) Empower the Township or any Township resident to enforce the Ordinance through an action brought in the Court of Common Pleas of Elk County;

7) Empower the Township or any Township resident to bring an action under state and federal civil rights laws for violations of the rights of Township residents and the rights of natural communities and ecosystems;

8) Call for changes to the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania that recognize and enforce the right to local community self government that cannot not be preempted when the municipality enacts laws that protect the health, safety and welfare of the community or assert and expand the rights of human and natural communities, and would elevate the rights of the community above the legal privileges and protections afforded to corporations.

The specific prohibitions enacted by the ordinance are justified on grounds that such prohibitions are necessary to secure and protect those rights enumerated. This exercise of local police powers is new to many local governments, which have been led to believe they have authority only to administer state regulations and may not protect the community with more strict measures than the state allows. Highland Township joins more than a dozen other communities that have taken seriously the obligation of municipal government to protect health, safety and welfare, quality of life and fundamental rights against fracking-related activities.

Copyright, Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund. Reprinted with permission.


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