Scherer: Fracking bans go local

Scherer: Fracking bans go local

October 22nd, 2011 By Glenn Scherer in Opinion Columns

Dryden, N.Y., has banned fracking -- shooting high-pressure toxic chemicals and water underground to release natural gas. The anti-fracking ordinance was immediately challenged by an irate gas-drilling corporation, which is taking the town of 13,000 to the State Supreme Court.

"The threat to our water supply is unconscionable," declared Dryden resident Jack Edmonds at the meeting that approved the ordinance. "Do we poison our water for the riches of a few?"

Across the country other towns frustrated by the failure of federal and state authorities to regulate fracking are acting to protect property rights, public health, and local economies.

At least a dozen New York municipalities have banned fracking. In Peters Township, Pa., a judge approved an anti-drilling referendum. Massillon, Ohio, officials recently rejected a major gas-drilling lease.

South Lake, Texas, put a moratorium on fracking to consider new ordinances protecting property owners. Dish, Texas, paid to do their own air pollution study after doubting industry results. They were right, finding the air seriously polluted by fracking emissions.

Fracking has been outlawed in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. The Pittsburgh ordinance condemns fracking as a "significant threat to the health, safety and welfare of residents and neighborhoods within the city... [Drilling] allows the deposition of toxins into the air, soil, water, environment and the bodies of residents."

Pittsburgh's city council sent a copy of their ordinance to every municipality in the state, urging adoption of similar laws. While these ordinances may go against state and federal rules, gas-drilling companies must comment on every ordinance, and are forced to bring court challenges, significantly slowing their ability to drill. Fracking companies have responded to this local revolt by threatening litigation intended to bankrupt and break the will of towns standing in their way.

Communities are hanging tough because stakes are high. Fracked wells can leak and pollute drinking water. Toxic frack wastewater, stored in open pools, pollutes the air and groundwater, and it overwhelms sewage treatment plants.

Unfortunately, defending communities from fracking is an uphill battle. Federal and state laws are stacked against property owners in favor of profit-obsessed fossil fuel companies. Under the Bush administration, Congress exempted fracking from the Safe Drinking Water Act. Thirty-nine states allow "private eminent domain," forcing landowners to surrender drilling rights to corporations. This legal outrage, known as "forced pooling" compels landowners who hold out against a fracking company to join in gas-leasing agreements with willing neighbors.

The trend toward local sovereignty is quickly morphing into a municipal environmental movement in direct counterpoint to Republican efforts to shut down the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and state schemes to gut environmental regulations and strip agencies of power and funding.

As a result, towns often stand alone to protect citizens' rights -- ranging from corporate threats such as the Keystone XL pipeline; mountaintop removal in Stephens, W, Va.; the pollution of drinking water by agribusiness in Seville, Calif.; and the depletion of aquifers by bottled water companies in Newfield, Me.

Now that the U.S. Supreme Court has recognized corporations as super citizens -- backed by wealth and political influence -- municipalities have no choice but to sound the battle cry and expend limited resources to prevent corporate bullying.

This is their established right. Towns pass ordinances to keep dogs on leashes to prevent them from defecating in your yard. It is no different -- and more imperative -- to require the leashing of aggressive corporations who pose a greater threat to private property, public health, local economies and our American way of life.

Glenn Scherer is senior editor of the Blue Ridge Press and lives in Vermont.