Grant Township is tiny community taking up a 27-square-mile patch of Western Pennsylvania that was faced with the threat of a giant energy corporation leaving toxic fracking wastewater deposits under it. Its 700 residents were concerned over the historical trend all over America of protesters being arrested while attempting to speak out against bullying corporations. They wanted to ensure this wouldn’t happen to them.
So Grant Township planned ahead. Two weeks before the planned demonstration, it passed a law that protects its residents from arrest if they protest Pennsylvania General Energy Company’s (PGE) creation of an injection well.
Residents believe this law is the first in the United States to legalize nonviolent civil disobedience against toxic wastewater injection wells. “We’re doing it to safeguard the and protect as many people as possible,” Township Supervisor Stacy Long said. “I will do whatever it takes to provide our residents with the tools and protections they need to nonviolently resist aggressions like those being proposed by PGE.”
Long said legalizing direct action is a response to the ongoing problem of rural residents seeing their voices shut out from discussions between state governments and big corporations on issues that have local ramifications. Like many other communities dealing with fracking and its waste, residents worry the injected wastewater will leak into and contaminate their drinking-water sources.
PGE wants to repurpose an existing well in Grant Township into a Class II disposal well. These wells are used to deposit toxic wastewater deep underground. The wastewater is a byproduct of oil and gas drilling and can contain toxic metals, benzene, and radioactive materials, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates 180,000 Class II injection wells currently operate, injecting more than 2 billion gallons of brine a day. About 20 percent are disposal wells.
While the EPA claims injection wells are safe, the toxic contents of the wells don’t always remain in the rock layer where they’ve been deposited. A ProPublica review found structural problems reported for 17,000 wells between 2007 and 2010. Like so many other people in communities dealing with fracking and its waste, residents worry the injected wastewater will leak into their drinking-water sources.
The community enlisted the aid of the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund (CELDF), which helped it to pass an ordinance in 2014 that established a community bill of rights that guaranteed clean air and water and banned injection wells.“The existing system is not providing communities with the legal tools to protect themselves,” said Chad Nicholson, Pennsylvania community organizer with CELDF. PGE and the Pennsylvania Independent Oil and Gas Association (PIOGA) sued, asserting that fossil fuel companies had a ‘right’ to inject wastewater, and in 2015 a judge ruled that the town couldn’t ban an injection well.
In November 2015, the community changed its municipality status from a second-class township to a home-rule municipality in the hopes that reinstating the ban against the injection well as a new type of municipality would give it more legal power. It established the country’s first municipal charter including a local bill of rights that specifically codified environmental and democratic rights for its citizenry. Long said home-rule municipalities have a greater say in decisions that are made about their community.
PGE needs one more permit before it can create the injection well. The company already received a permit from the EPA but is still waiting on one from the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP). The department gave PGE a permit in 2015 but revoked it a few months later, saying it needed to review additional criteria.
The town’s new law has yet to be tested in courts, but it’s just the latest legislative move in a three-year battle Grant Township has had with PGE since the energy company first announced its plans to convert a well for fracked wastewater disposal.
If a court does not uphold the people’s right to stop corporate activities threatening the well-being of the community, the ordinance codifies that, “any natural person may then enforce the rights and prohibitions of the charter through direct action.” Further, the ordinance states that any nonviolent direct action to enforce their Charter is protected, “prohibit[ing] any private or public actor from bringing criminal charges or filing any civil or other criminal action against those participating in nonviolent direct action.”
Industry’s position is that injection wells are the least expensive and most environmentally friendly way to dispose of fracking wastewater. But for Long, there is no place safe enough to pour toxic liquid into the ground. “I was elected to keep everything clean and nice and that weighs heavily on me,” Long said. “It’s going to have to be bodies in the road to stop those trucks if the courts fail us.”