Forest Hills Council Unanimously Adopts Community Rights Ordinance That Bans Gas Drilling
“I believe this is the most important decision we on Council will make this year… We have to do what we can on this issue, and I urge other boroughs to do the same."
--- Devon Woods, Forest Hills Borough Council
(Wednesday, October 19, 2011) By a unanimous vote, the Borough Council of Forest Hills, Allegheny County, Pennsylvania, voted to adopt a Local Bill of Rights, along with a prohibition on natural gas extraction to protect those rights.
The bill, titled “Forest Hills Borough’s Community Rights and Protection from Natural Gas Exploitation Ordinance” establishes specific rights for Borough residents, including the Right to Water, the Rights of Natural Communities, the Right to a Sustainable Energy Future, and the Right to Community Self-Government.
The Ordinance was drafted in consultation with the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund (CELDF).
Prior to the vote, Forest Hills resident and lead community proponent of the law, Elizabeth Donohoe remarked:
“I know the Council has been very diligent in its consideration of this subject. Speaking for many of your constituents -- in fact, over 400 residents signed pages of a petition that is still in circulation -- I thank you for doing the work necessary to help you understand that a limited, conditional use ordinance will not protect this town from industries who are bent on extracting what they want from beneath our feet. Only by the banning of polluting industries from within the borders of our Borough will you -- our elected officials -- uphold the PA Constitution, which guarantees us the safety of our water and air. Because of an appalling abdication of leadership in Harrisburg, the protection of air and water falls on local municipal officials. On behalf of future generations, we very much appreciate your rising to the challenge represented by this unfortunate reality.”
Council member Devon Woods made these comments before Council took up the measure:
“This is something I feel very strongly about. I believe this is the most important decision we on Council will make this year. When I was a little girl, my family would go to the Laurel Highlands; we would eat watercress that we picked from the Loyalhanna River. I would no more dream today of letting my children do that than I would allow them to cross Ardmore Blvd. by themselves. The water has been affected by drilling. Waangari Maathai, the Nobel Peace Prize winner who died recently has been on my mind. She tells a story of a hummingbird putting out a raging forest fire with drops of water from a lake as all the other woodland creatures look on, feeling powerless. 'What do you think you are doing?' she is asked. She replies 'I am doing the best I can...collectively it will make a difference.' We have to do what we can on this issue, and I urge other boroughs to do the same."
Following the unanimous vote, Council President Frank Porco said: "This was an easy vote. Our strategic plan is to make sure Forest Hills is viable 20 years down the road.”
The key prohibition enacted to protect the rights enumerated states: “It shall be unlawful for any corporation to engage in the extraction of natural gas within Forest Hills Borough, with the exception of gas wells and pipelines already installed and operating at the time of enactment of this Ordinance, provided that the extraction of gas from those existing wells does not involve any practice or process not previously used for the extraction of gas from those wells.”
In addition, the ordinance would make it “unlawful for any corporation to extract water from any source, whether surface or subsurface, within Forest Hills Borough, for use in the extraction of subsurface natural gas. It shall be unlawful for a corporation to import water into Forest Hills Borough for use in the extraction of subsurface natural gas. It shall be unlawful for any corporation to deposit waste water, “produced” water, “frack” water, brine or other materials or by-products of natural gas extraction activities, into the land, air or waters within Forest Hills Borough or within its external jurisdiction.”
The ordinance goes on to assert: “Corporations in violation of the prohibition against natural gas extraction, or seeking to engage in natural gas extraction shall not have the rights of “persons” afforded by the United States and Pennsylvania Constitutions, nor shall those corporations be afforded rights under the 1st or 5th amendments to the United States Constitution or corresponding sections of the Pennsylvania Constitution, nor shall those corporations be afforded the protections of the commerce or contracts clauses within the United States Constitution or corresponding sections of the Pennsylvania Constitution.”
The bill also recognizes the right of the people to a form of government where they live “which recognizes that all power is inherent in the people, that all free governments are founded on the people’s authority and consent, and that neither individuals nor corporate entities and their directors and managers shall enjoy special privileges or powers under the color of state law which purports to make community majorities subordinate to them.”
The bill was modeled after the Ordinance drafted by CELDF and adopted on November 16th of last year by the City of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. West Homestead Borough adopted virtually the same Ordinance on May 10th, followed by Baldwin Borough on June 21st. Both municipalities are in Allegheny County, Pennsylvania. Mountain Lake Park, Maryland adopted the Community Rights gas drilling ban on March 6th of this year, and Wales, New York did so on June 14th, 2011. On July 20th, 2011, Wilkinsburg Borough, Allegheny County, Pennsylvania joined the movement to assert community rights over fracking corporations. A similar Community Rights Ordinance prohibiting the depositing or storage of frack-water was enacted last October by Licking Township in Clarion County, Pennsylvania.
In an earlier discussion of the measure, Council President Frank Porco commented “Everybody’s definitely behind it. I think we owe it to the community and to future generations.”
The Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund, headquartered in Chambersburg, has been working with people in Pennsylvania since 1995 to assert their fundamental rights to democratic local self-governance, and to enact laws which end destructive and rights-denying corporate action aided and abetted by state and federal governments.