First Local Government Refuses to Recognize Corporate Claims to Civil Rights: Bans Corporate Involvement in Governing

On the evening of December 9, 2002, the elected municipal officials of Porter Township, Clarion County — a municipality of 1,500 residents an hour north of Pittsburgh in Northwestern Pennsylvania — became the first local government in the United States to eliminate corporate claims to civil and constitutional privileges. The township adopted a binding law declaring that corporations operating in the township may not wield legal privileges — historically used by corporations to override democratic decisionmaking — to stop the township from passing laws which protect residents from toxic sewage sludge.

The actions by Porter Township thus repudiate the history of state and federal public officials restricting the rights of citizens while expanding the rights of corporations and their owners.

Background

Along with close to a dozen other municipal governments in Pennsylvania, Porter Township officials had previously adopted a local law governing the land application of sewage sludge in the township. The adoption of that municipal law was an outgrowth of the work done by residents and municipal officials to stop sewage sludge corporations from dumping Pittsburgh-generated sludge in the township. To that immediate end, the municipal government adopted a “tipping fee” law that requires corporate sludge haulers to pay a per ton tipping fee to the township to enable the municipality to verify the safety of each load of sludge applied to land.

Sludge corporations have responded both legislatively and judicially to the adoption of those laws by Pennsylvania municipalities, which prevent corporations from turning to state and federal officials to override local self-governance.

Judicial Response

In 2000, Synagro Corporation — one of the largest sludge hauling corporations in the United States — sued township officials in Centre County, Pennsylvania, in an attempt to overturn the tipping fee law adopted by that township. In their complaint, the corporation alleged that the law violated a litany of civil and constitutional rights asserted by the corporation. A ruling by the federal court is expected by 2004.

Legislative Response

Legislatively, sludge corporations drafted and vigorously pushed bills that would strip Pennsylvania municipalities of their authority to make rules that would control the land application of sewage sludge and factory farms. A unique coalition of groups that included municipal governments, the Pennsylvania Farmers Union, the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture, the Sierra Club, the AFL-CIO, the United Mine Workers of America, Common Cause, and others defeated that legislation at the end of the 2002 legislative session.

In addition to the legislative and judicial responses to the assertion of local democracy by communities, sludge corporations have also instructed the state environmental regulatory agency and corporate farm lobbies to intervene with Clarion County townships. In late 2002, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection and the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau met with Clarion County townships to convince them to repeal their local laws. The four Clarion County townships that have adopted the law refused. Instead, Porter Township forged ahead with adopting the most recent law, which eliminates corporate interference in the democratic processes of the township.

Also in late 2002, the Alcosan Corporation, a sludge-hauling corporation in Pennsylvania, threatened to use Pennsylvania courts to overturn the sludge law passed by the township. Porter Township supervisors, upon learning of the ability of corporations to direct the courts to vindicate corporate claims to civil and legal privileges to override local governments, decided to pass a law to eliminate corporate claims to those rights.

The actions of Porter Township — along with the actions of other municipal governments in Pennsylvania dealing with land-applied sewage sludge and factory farms — evidence a shift of communities away from permitting corporate harms to asserting direct control over corporations.

The Sludge and Corporate Personhood Ordinances were developed by the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund in partnership with the Program on Corporations, Law, and Democracy (POCLAD) and communities across Pennsylvania impacted by land-applied sewage sludge and corporate factory farms.

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