Last week we wrote about the powerlessness of locally elected leaders when outside corporations decide to bring environmentally damaging projects into our communities. Since the very industries that are (supposedly) being regulated were part of the process of writing the regulations, the entire process is biased in favor of corporate property rights as opposed to a community's right to safety and well-being. The fox guarding the henhouse has more rights than the hens within.
For most of us, this is a scarey idea. We all were taught that our government exists to protect us, and that our elected officials have our best interests at heart. While that may be true at the local level, locally elected officials often find their hands tied by state laws that preempt local laws, and by the fact that the US Constitution gives the right to regulate interstate commerce only to the Congress.
How did we get here? Pennsylvania's first state constitution, written in 1776, is widely recognized by historians as the most democratic of any of the state constitutions written during the Revolutionary era. We Pennsylvanians have a proud history and we continue that history into the present day. But along the line, things began to change. Large wealthy corporations (both within the state and from outside) pushed for their own economic interests. Wealth has always carried political power with it, and its interests are not always the same as the interests of our communities.
But there are things that communities can do to protect our families, homes, farms, streams, forests, and way of life. There are ways that we can work with our locally elected officials for the benefit of our communities. Beginning here in Pennsylvania, many local communities have established ordinances that control the use of land in their area. Hundreds of communities have adopted laws asserting their right to community self-government and banning state-licensed corporate harms.
So what can we do? Each of us can begin talking with neighbors about the kinds of changes that we want for our communities and (especially) the kinds of changes we DON”T want. We can urge our local leaders to begin looking at a “Community Bill of Rights” There is even a “Pennsylvania Community Rights Network” that can help you with ideas about how to begin. If corporations have rights, why don't communities? Such a “Bill of Rights” can lay out the list of what is needed to protect our communities, our families, our property and our environment.
Pennsylvanians have been an important part in beginning this move toward recognizing the rights of local communities. The important thing is that people join with their neighbors to stand together and work with local officials, to do what we need to do to make sure our families, our homes, our communities are safe.
Sometimes people think that communities have lost their rights; they may say “The system is broken, it doesn't work.” The reality is that the system is working very well for those who wrote it and run it – the corporations, not the people. The environmental damage being done in Pennsylvania is mostly from corporations that are run by people who don't live in the effected areas and whose children don't go to the effected schools. These corporations make a lot of money out of our area, and return very little of it. No one will change this but us.
We live in a democracy. We have the opportunity to freely elect the people who will represent us at every level of government, from township trustees to representatives and senators. Even though we do this at every level, the elected representatives who are closest to us, and who are most likely to share our concerns for our communities are our local officials – township trustees, borough councilperson, and county commissioners. These people are often our neighbors and friends and we elect them because we know that they will have the best interests of the health and safety of our communities at heart. We may agree or disagree on national or world issues, but we trust that these representatives will work to keep out communities safe locally.
So what happens when a community is threatened with some kind of environmental damage? What happens when a large, out of state corporation decides that one of our communities is an ideal place to dump the toxic waster from their factories, or store the contaminated water that comes back out of their fracked natural gas wells? The dangers are obvious and well documented – smell, contamination of drinking water sources, increased danger for our local fire fighters and first responders, damage to agriculture, increased health problems for all people nearby. What can our trusted local representatives do to protect our communities from these dangers? NOTHING!
That's right – NOTHING! Yes, these elected leaders can challenge the permit, making sure that all the details are correct, but if the details are not correct, the corporation can fix the errors and resubmit the permit application which is pretty sure to be approved. Depending on the existing zoning ordinances local officials may be able to shift the location of some corporate installation slightly. But there is no action that local officials like township trustees or county commissioners can take that will in any way prevent the state and/or federal government from issuing the desired permit. NONE!
In fact, the state and federal regulation processes that are supposed to assure clean air, clean water, and safe communities are all actually set up to assure that corporations get the permits they need to do the business they want, whether it is harmful to their neighbors or not. Whenever a new law is passed by the legislative branch (state or national), offices of the executive branch go to work writing the detailed requirements that a corporation must meet to carry out its business. However, the government staff of these offices may not be knowledgeable about the work of many corporations and so they call on representatives of the companies to explain their version of what the risks and benefits are and what is a reasonable way of carrying out their business. In other words, the very corporations that will be regulated get the chance to recommend how the regulations will be written and enforced. The fox is guarding the henhouse!
There are a few places where elected community leaders have tried to fight back. Sometimes they have won the first round because corporations are so sure of receiving their permits that they are sloppy in their preparation. But when the corporation comes back with all the paperwork properly filled out, the permit for whatever environmentally damaging activity is sure to be granted. In the regulatory process, the so-called “property rights” of an outside corporation will be more highly valued than your community's rights to clean air and water.
Are there any ways for communities to protect themselves against outside corporations whose work damages our lives, our safety and our comfort? This article will be continued next week.
What's For Dinner?
Is there any question that gets asked more frequently? Every day that questions is asked in hundred of thousands of households. But does anyone really know what is in the food that we eat for dinner? Do we even have a right to know?
Through the natural world God has given us an amazing variety of plants that we use as food. They nourish our bodies, and our spirits are nourished as we share that food with our families and friends. But what is in that food? Is it healthy, nutritious food, or filled with empty calories and chemical preservatives? Is it food that grows naturally, or food that has been genetically modified to make it resistant to certain pesticides and herbicides? Do you know what you are eating and feeding to your families?
Over the last few years, many states have passed laws requiring that genetically modified ingredients be accurately labeled in all food products. At the same time, many huge food companies, and many of the companies that provide seeds, fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides have resisted these laws, trying to have the information hidden or coded in some way. If these products are perfectly safe for us to eat, why are the companies afraid of letting us know what is in our food?
This issue came up a year ago, in the form of a proposed national law euphemistically called the “Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act.” The problem is that this act would have eliminated the requirements for accuracy in food labels, and allowed things which have not been proven to be safe to be added to food without being listed on the labels. It also would have overridden state laws that protect consumers. It was more properly known as the “Deny Americans the Right to Know” act, or the DARK act. In July last year this proposed DARK act was defeated, preserving the right of states to pass laws protecting consumers, and protecting the right of consumers to know what is in the food they buy.
That should have settled it, right? No such luck!
Now the grocery and food industry is back with another proposal – instead of clearly legible labels to tell what is in the food, they want to make the information available only to those who want to go hunting for it. This law would allow food companies to hide information about genetically modified ingredients in the QR codes (Those little square boxes that require a smartphone and an App to read) or make it available only by calling the company's 1-800 number. Either way, the information about your food becomes more and more difficult for you to obtain. The new DARK act will make it clear - You won't have a right to know what companies are putting in your food! The companies don't want you to have that right!
We all have the right to know what is in our food, and companies that produce seed, fertilizer, herbicides and processed food have a responsibility to respect that right. All of us can let our senators know that we strongly oppose any effort to hide health information about what is in our food. We DO have the right to know! We can also vote with our shopping power by buying local, unprocessed foods. That can mean a big change in our thinking and habits but it sure gets the message across to the food industry!