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Tackling Corporate Power, One Town at a Time

What’s a town to do when state regulatory agencies don’t keep corporate drilling out?

What’s a town to do when state regulatory agencies don’t keep corporate drilling out?

As more information about the dangers of hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” (a technique used during natural gas drilling) emerges, more and more cities and municipalities are organizing to keep drilling and fracking out of their own communities, but are surprised to find that they do not have the legal authority to say “no” to these corporate activities.

Last week, Mountain Lake Park, Maryland, with fewer than 2,500 residents, became the latest community to do something about this, adopting the state’s first ordinance banning corporations from natural gas drilling.

Drafted with the help of the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund, the ordinance comes on the heels of the City of Pittsburgh’s ordinance banning drilling by corporations, adopted in November. Both ordinances also eliminate the authority of corporations to wield their constitutional rights to override the municipality’s wishes. Such constitutional rights and powers are often used by corporations to overturn local and state laws adopted to protect the environment and public health.

Also See: Fracking Debate Heats Up as New Jersey Seeks Ban

More and more communities are organizing to fight drilling and fracking, but are surprised to find that they do not have the legal authority to say “no” to these corporate activities.

A similar ordinance was recently introduced in Wales, New York; it comes up for a vote in April. If adopted, it would make Wales the first community in New York to restrict corporate rights and ban corporations from drilling.

Natural gas drilling and fracking—a technique now used in over ninety percent of gas wells—is spreading across the massive Marcellus Shale natural gas deposit, which stretches from Maryland, Pennsylvania, New York, and into Ohio, West Virginia, and Virginia.

Fracking involves injecting fresh water with sand and chemicals into the ground to fracture rock and release the gas. The result of fracking is millions of gallons of toxic wastewater, which finds its way into rivers and streams. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is asking the industry to voluntarily release the list of chemicals used; meanwhile use of the practice is increasing.

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Meanwhile, communities are finding that their state governments are legally authorizing corporations to conduct these activities. Thus instead of helping communities to stop the drilling and its potentially toxic impacts, state governments—including environmental regulatory agencies—are actually issuing permits to corporations to drill.

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Towns facing other kinds of corporate projects—such as mining, factory farms, and corporate water withdrawals—have had similar experiences, finding that the regulatory agencies they expected to protect them were in fact permitting the activities the communities wanted to prevent.

For example, residents in the Town of Nottingham, New Hampshire, faced with a proposal from the USA Springs corporation to siphon off over 300,000 gallons of water a day from the local aquifer, sought help from the state Department of Environmental Services (DES) to stop the project and protect their water.

Commercial water withdrawals impact both surface and groundwater resources. They deplete drinking water and can contaminate aquifers and wells. In addition, withdrawals dry up streams, wetlands, and lakes, as well as damaging habitat, and harming wildlife.

But Nottingham found that the DES, rather than helping communities protect their water, was instead issuing permits to corporations to take it.

Communities in Pennsylvania, facing corporate factory farms, have had a similar experience. They found that, rather than helping them stop factory farms, the state Department of Environmental Protection was issuing permits to corporations to set up industrial operations housing tens of thousands of hogs. The impacts from these industrial farms—including environmental pollution, public health problems, the loss of small and family farms—did not seem to have bearing on the state’s decisions.

Communities such as Mountain Lake Park are beginning to look inward, adopting local laws which assert the community’s right to self govern and thus ban corporations from drilling.
State agencies are following regulations established under state laws which legally authorize such activities. Communities are thus coming up against their own state governments when they’re trying to protect the local environment and public health. Natural gas drilling is proving no different.

That’s why Mountain Lake Park—along with many other municipalities facing water extraction, natural gas drilling, or other threats to community and environmental health—is no longer looking to the state for help. Instead they are beginning to look inward, adopting local laws which assert the community’s right to self govern and thus ban corporations from drilling.

As Mountain Lake Park Mayor Leo Martin explained after the recent vote, “Our town government is responsible for the health, safety, and rights our citizens. When the county, state, and federal governments fail in their duties it is our duty to take action.”

Mari Margil wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. Mari is the associate director of the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund, a nonprofit, public interest law firm providing legal services to communities facing threats to their local environment, agriculture, economy, and quality of life. For more information, go to

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