TAYLORSTOWN, Pennsylvania (Reuters) - A small Pennsylvania town is trying to ban coal mining in a battle being played out across the state as rural communities try to assert control over mining, gas drilling and other businesses.
Blaine Township, a community of 600 about 40 miles southwest of Pittsburgh, hopes to trigger a legal battle that could determine the rights of municipalities throughout the United States to control corporate activity.
Some legal experts say the township is highly unlikely to win that fight. For now the dispute is in federal district court, where major energy companies have sued the township over three ordinances that would ban coal mining and require companies in any business to disclose their activities to local officials.
Penn Ridge Coal LLC, a unit of Alliance Resource Partners, and Allegheny Pittsburgh Coal Co., a unit of Allegheny Energy, say Blaine’s laws violate their corporate rights.
The companies say the ordinances would prevent them from mining 10.6 million tons of recoverable coal beneath the township — enough to supply electricity for 2 million people for a year.
The township has gone further than any of the 120 U.S. municipalities — most of them in Pennsylvania — that have passed ordinances to curb corporate activity such as factory farming or spreading sewage sludge, said its lawyer, Tom Linzey of the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund.
Of three townships sued by corporations over their ordinances, only Blaine has refused to back down, Linzey said.
Elsewhere in Pennsylvania, towns are resisting efforts by energy companies to extract natural gas from the massive Marcellus Shale formation amid fears that toxic chemicals used in drilling are contaminating ground water and endangering human health.
In Blaine, residents are seeking to prevent coal mining — which they expect to begin there in 2011 — because they fear it will ruin their houses and disrupt water supplies, as they say it has in surrounding areas.
They want to block longwall mining, a technique that rips tons of coal from underground without putting anything in its place, causing the land above to sag. The practice, which has been used in coal-rich southwest Pennsylvania since the 1970s, has cracked the walls, roofs and basements of homes and opened fissures in the land, diverting or draining creeks and ponds.
In neighboring Morris Township, Tammy Bowman pointed to a pile of broken wood and concrete — all that’s left of an outbuilding she said was destroyed by shifting ground from mining beneath her 19th century farmhouse.
“It just started to drop and drop,” she said. “It got so bad, you couldn’t even walk in the door.”
One section of her house is held up with mechanical jacks.
Near the village of Graysville, the 62-acre (25-hectare) Duke Lake, once used for fishing and boating, now sits empty after the shifting ground opened a crack in its retaining wall, environmentalists say.
Blaine’s three ordinances, passed in 2006, 2007 and 2008, also assert that communities have a right under the U.S. Constitution to control business within their boundaries and that corporations do not have constitutional rights as “persons” to sue municipalities for passing laws that would hurt corporate interests.
“This illegitimate bestowal of civil and political rights upon corporations prevents the administration of laws within Blaine Township and usurps basic human and constitutional rights guaranteed to the people of Blaine Township,” says the township’s Corporate Rights Ordinance of 2006.
To implement the ordinances, township supervisors are now campaigning for “home rule,” a legal code that transfers some powers from state to local control and is commonly used to raise taxes or increase the number of supervisors on a board.
Blaine supervisors want to use home rule to establish what they say is the township’s constitutional right to control corporate activity. Voters on May 19 approved a plan to set up a commission to study the proposal and recommend whether to adopt it.
A third lawsuit has been brought by Range Resources, a natural gas company, asking the court to invalidate Blaine’s demand that corporations disclose their activities.
Penn Ridge Coal and Allegheny Pittsburgh Coal are asking U.S. Judge Donetta Ambrose of the Western District of Pennsylvania to declare Blaine’s ordinances invalid and unenforceable.
In April, Judge Ambrose denied the township’s motion to dismiss the case. She is expected to rule late this year.
Linzey predicted the case will eventually go to the U.S. Supreme Court because it pits energy companies who want to exploit one of America’s richest coal seams against residents who are determined to resist what they see as rapacious mining.
He conceded the court is unlikely to overturn more than 100 years of established law that gives corporations rights as “persons” under the constitution, but he said the expected outcome would become a springboard for a popular campaign for a constitutional amendment to strip corporations of those rights.
Blaine’s supervisors said they want to establish a principle of local self-government that will inspire other communities.
“Who dictates how we are going to live here?” asked Board spokesman Michael Vacca. “Should it not be us?”
Editing by Daniel Trotta and Cynthia Osterman