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.”
In November 2015, Grant became the first municipal community to establish a local Bill of Rights, which also happened to ban fracking wastewater injection. Before that, Grant Township made history in 2014 when it became the first place where an ecosystem filed to defend itself in a lawsuit.
Grant Township’s story is a rebellious one and plays a feature part in Public Herald’s upcoming documentary INVISIBLE HAND. Grant’s local, law-making strategy challenges the corporate status quo head-on, attempting to rewrite state and national law in order to let communities have first and final say in what goes down there.
As it stands, communities across the globe are grappling with how to protect themselves against industrial, corporate harm that is permitted by state and federal agencies, which essentially forces a certain amount of risk onto citizens of the community without its consent.
In the United States, we have freedom of speech and assembly, but anyone who civilly disobeys the government is subject to criminal and civil charges, like disorderly conduct or rioting that can include fines and jail time. Civil disobedience is a common tactic used throughout history when people decide that ‘enough is enough.’
“We’re tired of being told by corporations and our so-called environmental regulatory agencies that we can’t stop this injection well,” Grant Township Supervisor Stacy Long explained. “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.”
A press release about Grant’s new law reveals backing from Tim DeChristopher, who spent nearly two years in prison for civil disobedience he carried out to block the auction of public lands in the redrock country [think Arches] of southern Utah to oil and gas companies for drilling/fracking/mining. DeChristopher posed as a bidder in the auction and won bids for 22,000 acres of public land that were later determined were never supposed to be auctioned in the first place.
DeChristopher was charged in 2009 with two felony violations of the Federal Onshore Oil and Gas Leasing Reform Act and for making false statements. Released in April 2013, he is now co-founder of the Climate Disobedience Center.
Regarding Grant Township, he 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.”
– Tim DeChristopher, Co-founder, Climate Disobedience Center [photo: Wikimedia Commons]
In June 2014, the elected supervisors of Grant Township unanimously enacted a Community Bill of Rights Ordinance that banned the underground injection of toxic waste from oil and gas fracking. The township was then sued by Pennsylvania General Energy, a company that wants to inject waste underground there, a practice that is known to pose risk to nearby drinking water supplies. All of Grant Township’s residents are on private well water.
PGE asked the court “to force the Township to pay damages for violating the corporation’s civil rights” by banning wastewater injection, and “to force the Township to pay for the corporation’s legal fees.”
Though a judge struck down parts of the township’s Ordinance in favor of PGE, she based her decision on the fact that Grant was a “second class township” under state code and didn’t have the authority to stop waste injection. So the people of Grant Township set about and democratically elected to become a Home Rule Municipality instead. They then drafted and passed a Home Rule Charter with help from Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund (CELDF), which is also representing Grant Township pro bono in the ongoing litigation with PGE.
Grant’s Bill of Rights does a few things, including:
- Recognizes people’s rights to clean air and water
- Asserts the right to local community self-government
- Proclaims the right to be taxed fairly
Grant Township Supervisor and Chairman Jon Perry summed up the township’s ongoing, several year battle 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.”