‘We Are Not Free’ – Pennsylvania Sues Communities For Banning Frack Waste

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Cover photo: Grant Township supervisor Stacy Long being interviewed by Public Herald for the documentary “INVISIBLE HAND.” © Joshua B. Pribanic

by Melissa A. Troutman for Public Herald

April 3, 2017   |   Project: INVISIBLE HAND

As an elected official, it is Stacy Long’s sworn duty to protect her constituents. As a resident, and now as a supervisor of Grant Township in Indiana County, Pennsylvania, she and her fellow citizens have taken bold steps to fight against government and industry who want to force oil and gas waste into their rural community.

“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 told Public Herald last year.

Pennsylvania Home Rule Mailer

The “No Say? Let’s Have A Say.” mailer was used by Grant Twp. to successfully campaign and pass a home rule charter which solidified their right to self-govern. [pictured: Stacy Long] © Joshua B. Pribanic

In 2015, Grant Township adopted the nation’s first municipal charter establishing a local bill of rights with help from the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund (CELDF). The Bill of Rights asserts environmental and democratic rights and bans frack wastewater injection wells as a violation of those rights:

All residents of Grant Township, along with natural communities and ecosystems within the Township, possess the right to clean air, water, and soil, which shall include the right to be free from activities which may pose potential risks to clean air, water, and soil within the Township, including the depositing of waste from oil and gas extraction. – Article I, Section 104, Grant Township Bill of Rights

Half a year later, Grant Township once again entered new territory and became the first community in the United States to legalize civil disobedience. According to Grant’s civil disobedience law, anyone who commits a nonviolent act in order to protect the community’s Bill of Rights has the legal right to do so – but not only that – the law also prohibits “any private or public actor from bringing criminal charges.”

As Public Herald reported in 2014, these groundbreaking laws are being tested in an ongoing legal battle with the industry — “Pennsylvania Ecosystem Fights Corporation for Rights in Landmark Fracking Lawsuit.”

And now the state is joining the fight — to benefit industry.

Last week, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) issued two new permits for frack wastewater injection wells – one in Grant Township and another in Highland Township in Elk County.

Highland has also adopted a local bill of rights banning frack waste injection wells.

On the same day the waste permits were issued, DEP filed lawsuits against both Highland and Grant seeking to nullify the democratically-passed bans.

“There aren’t many of us, and that’s why I think [the company] chose us,” Highland Township resident Marsha Buhl told Public Herald. “They probably think small communities are easier to bully or buy off.”

Suing communities is not something DEP does — Public Herald has found no record of the DEP suing townships over permits related to fracking — which makes it quite unprecedented.

At the same time the Department is suing communities who don’t want to become dumping grounds for industrial waste, DEP’s Environmental Justice Committee announced it’s hosting a series of listening sessions across the state to find out if current environmental justice policies are adequately representing the needs of communities.

Neither Highland nor Grant Township are included in the locations of DEP’s upcoming environmental justice tour.

“How ironic is it that the Department of Environmental Protection is coming at Grant Township with the full of its might,” Long said, “precisely because we want to protect our environment?”

Grant Township Interview for Community Rights

Stacy Long speaking to Public Herald alongside her mother Judy Wanchisn and supervisor Jon Perry — at the home of Mr. Perry. © Joshua B. Pribanic

According to DEP, “The permitting and operation of wells for the disposal of brine, `produced water,’ `frack water,’ flowback, and other waste or by-products of oil and gas extraction and other fluids is exclusively and comprehensively regulated within the commonwealth by the department.”

Pennsylvania currently has only six active injection wells.

But injection wells have a dangerous history that DEP hasn’t discussed in press statements or in its fact sheet.

Class II injection wells, like the ones permitted for Grant and Highland, have been linked to groundwater contamination and earthquakes by the USGS and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The EPA states that “injection wells may threaten ground water resources.”

frack waste

Records from the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) obtained by Public Herald showing frack waste from unconventional wells. © Public Herald

In 2012, ProPublica found that “from late 2007 to late 2010, one well integrity violation was issued for every six deep injection wells examined — more than 17,000 violations nationally. More than 7,000 wells showed signs that their walls were leaking.

“Records also show wells are frequently operated in violation of safety regulations and under conditions that greatly increase the risk of fluid leakage and the threat of water contamination.”

That’s a huge concern for the people in Grant Township, where all 700 residents rely on private water wells.

“You can’t drink money,” said Long. “What happens if the injection well leaks into our groundwater?”

Grant Township Building

The Grant Township property where public meetings are held with elected officials. © Joshua B. Pribanic

It is also no secret that waste injection wells are causing earthquakes, as evidenced by Oklahoma and Ohio. In fact, DEP has added special requirements for the two new injection well permits in order to detect seismic activity.

But that doesn’t make Long feel any better.

“It doesn’t protect us from earthquakes, it just means they measure them” she said in an interview earlier this year.

“DEP isn’t going to shut down the injection well unless there’s an earthquake greater than 2.0. So the permit isn’t just for injecting waste, DEP is also permitting them to create earthquakes, as long as they’re under 2.0.”

Long’s colleague, Township Supervisor and Chairman Jon Perry, summed up Grant’s ongoing battle:

“Should a polluting corporation have the right to inject toxic waste, or should a community have the right to protect itself? 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.”

Grant Twp Frack Waste Ban

Jon Perry, Judy Wanchisn and Stacy Long stand together on the bank of Little Mahoning Creek in Grant Township where Supervisors and residents passed a local law banning injection wells in order to protect local water supplies. The law also gives legal rights to nature, like the Little Mahoning Watershed, as a living entity with inherent rights to exist and flourish the same as a person. Pennsylvania DEP is suing the township to remove the ban and force a waste injection well without the community’s consent. © Kyle Pattison

‘WE ARE NOT FREE’

According to the organization Freedom House, the United States is a “Free” nation.  Freedom House ranks countries as “Free”, “Partly free” or “Not free” every year based on a series of criteria.

Freedom in the world

An interactive map of global ‘freedom’ according to Freedom House. Green shade represents those countries that are most “free,” yellow “partly free,” and purple as “not free.” © Freedom House

But ask residents of Grant and Highland townships if the United States is ‘free,’ and you’ll get a starkly different perspective.

“We’re not a free country,” said Buhl during a phone call with Public Herald.

“Think about it, do we really have a voice? We may vote, but even if our vote counts, the government gets bought off by corporations. They always tend to side with money over people.”

Joshua B. Pribanic contributed to this report.

Disclosure: Public Herald is producing the documentary film ”INVISIBLE HAND” which features Grant Twp. and their community bill of rights. For more information about this project and upcoming screenings please visit http://invisiblehandfilm.com/press-kit. Public Herald will continue to report this story only with your help. Please consider donating today to become a member, and join our mission – investigative journalism in the public interest.

AUTHORS

Melissa Troutman
Melissa Troutman

Melissa A. Troutman

Executive Director

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Joshua B. Pribanic

Editor-in-Chief

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  • Butch Bruce

    I think Indiana County Pa. has been dumped on enough . I have a toxic fly ash dump 100 yards from my home in Homer City Pa. They secretly started dumping the fly ash behind the residents of this community’s backs a couple of years ago. What is happening in the state sucks . We are becoming a dump site .. Waste Management has a land fill about 5 miles from here where they are dumping all sorts of toxic junk from surrounding states. It’s sad what Indiana County has become. I say keep on fighting to the residents of Grant Township ..

  • E. D. Yote

    Fracking is an abomination, pure and simple. May God bless and strengthen all who would stand up and make this known. Pure air & water are the most sublime, the most necessary, the most central to health of all things on Earth. That they should be harmed in the least is purely criminal. No half measures! No matter the cost! End it now and stop the poisoning,

  • russhead

    Stand strong. DEP should have no ability to sue anybody because it should be abolished. Our once local dump has become the entire planet.

  • Nina Forsythe

    We just banned fracking in MD. Many of us will gladly come and stand with Grant Township residents to keep injection wells out.

  • Kevin Moody

    Elected officials’ first duty is to obey the PA and US constitutions. DEP’s lawsuits were not filed “for industry” – they were filed simply to uphold the rule of law in our republican form of government. They are unprecedented because the position of Grant Twp and CELDF is unprecedented – a right to local self-government that is superior to state and federal law. Our country could not function if each municipality became its own sovereign nation, free to decide which state and federal laws are lawful within its boundaries. This attack on the rule of law is not limited to environmental issues. Just check out CELDF’s website. And there’s nothing mysterious or questionable about the timing of these lawsuits. These Home Rule Charters declare DEP’s issuing these permits to be unlawful and authorize the townships to fine DEP for these declared unlawful actions. That’s why these lawsuits were filed the same day the declared unlawful actions were taken.

    • David P Mayton

      Morality is always greater than the scribbles of politicians you call “law”. I wonder what type of “law” would need to be enacted in order for you to come to this logical conclusion. Perhaps a law allowing for the consumption of infants? Please stop worshiping your rulers and masters (Stockholm Syndrome).

    • William J. Woodcock III

      https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/d9268ea3a5b6125aac9146b22d01cea0c42981991a271d76838d7f7115e501ff.jpg Laws should be challenged when they are unjust to the people meant to be protected and free.
      If no one challenged laws, we would still have people owning other people, women would not be property owners, women would not be allowed to vote, and you, Kevin Moody, would not be able to enjoy an icy cold beer on a hot July 4th ! Those are the ‘big ones”.. The list of outdated and unjust laws is too long to continue in this forum.
      Grant Township is doing the best they can and using any means possible to protect the people of Grant Township from toxic waste arriving on their doorstep, To the tune of 30,000 barrels a month (that is one million, two hundred and sixty thousand gallons a month) over a 10 yr. period.
      I doubt you would want this anywhere near your home either.
      Someone needs to bring this to the attention of the courts and the lawmakers, and actively take a stand against corporate “cruelty” against humanity.
      My support with with the people of Grant Township !

    • jnln

      DEP’s first duty is to follow it’s mission.

      MISSION STATEMENT

      The Department of Environmental Protection’s mission is to protect Pennsylvania’s air, land and water from pollution and to provide for the health and safety of its citizens through a cleaner environment. We will work as partners with individuals, organizations, governments and businesses to prevent pollution and restore our natural resources.

      The Governor’s has sworn to uphold Pennsylvania’s constitution including Article 1 Section 27.

      The people have a right to clean air, pure water, and to the preservation of the natural, scenic, historic and esthetic values of the environment. Pennsylvania’s public natural resources are the common property of all the people, including generations yet to come. As trustee of these resources, the Commonwealth shall conserve and maintain them for the benefit of all the people.

  • didoro

    Don’t give up, Grant and Highland! Your work is more than important, it’s nothing less than saving the future of our communities— our children’s communities, and their children’s. Hopefully you are at the forefront of a movement that will spread!

  • daelv
  • BobSchmetzer

    The flow back water and tailings are radioactive and so toxic they can not be made safe. That’s why it is going back down into the ground. No one can see where it goes . So how safe does that make you feel ? The Pa DEP is really the department of industrial protection, commonly called DIP’s. They have not lived up to their Mission Statement , or the oath of office swearing to obey and to defend the US & Pa. constitutions. Article #1 and # 27 are constantly violated . Harrisburg has corrupted the agency and replaced science with politics . Industry monies have bought our Government . Its time to shut the corruption down. Local communities have an obligation to protect themselves. If and when a government fails to protect its citizens , it is not only the citizens right , but their duty to overthrow that government and get one that does protect them, by force if necessary. US Constitution !

  • John Pierce

    The stuff they pump in the ground is TOXIC, so the stuff that comes out has to be TOXIC !!!

  • Jimmy Johnson

    Melissa, did Stacy Long divulge to you that she receives free natural gas from a well, located not more than 200 or so feet, from her private residence to heat her and her husbands house? or, that her mother and father have several natural gas wells on their property, drilled by Victory Energy Corp., and have been receiving royalties for years? My thoughts are – probably not.