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.