Western Pennsylvania Court Sanctions Lawyers for Trying to Stop a Fracking Wastewater Operation in Grant Township
Last week a western Pennsylvania federal judge took the extraordinary step of sanctioning two lawyers from the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund, for trying to stop the development of a fracking wastewater injection well in Grant Township by Pennsylvania General Energy, an oil-and-gas exploration company. Under PGE's proposal, the well, which received EPA approval in 2014, would become a busy industrial site, allowing 42,000 gallons of toxic and radioactive fracking wastewater to be injected each day into a layer of rock 7,500 feet beneath the community. For the past six years residents have successfully fought off the project with the help of CELDF, in large part by adopting a local ordinance that granted residents the right to self-government, and granted legal rights to nature. However, that tact appears to have come to an end for now as the court, in its recent ruling, called CELDF's legal tactics “implausible.”
Judge Susan Paradise Baxter, of the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania called the self-government approach “unreasonable under any circumstance” as creating “enormous expense to parties” and imposing “taxes” on limited judicial resources. Judge Baxter then ordered CELDF executive director Thomas Linzey and CELDF attorney Elizabeth Dunne to pay $52,000 to Pennsylvania General Energy. Not only that, but these attorneys are also facing possible suspension or even disbarment as the Judge’s ruling will be passed along to the Disciplinary Board of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, “to determine appropriate disciplinary measures.”
CELDF's work has long been centered on protecting the rights of communities and the environment, and lessening the power of corporations. Judge Baxter's ruling seemingly deals a substantial blow, not only to CELDF’s approach, but to the very idea that people should have the right to control what goes on in their communities. This ruling is another boon to corporations’ longstanding philosophy of privatizing profits while dumping the inconvenient realities of its profit-generating activities on the commons, in this case greenlighting PGE’s foisting of its highly toxic waste onto the Grant Township community.
Unsurprisingly, the Pennsylvania Independent Oil and Gas Association, a powerful industry lobbying group that intervened in the Grant Township for PGE, is emboldened by the court's decision and hopes that it has the type of chilling effect that will allow them to operate without impunity. But CELDF is not done yet. It will appeal the decision with the Third Circuit Court in Philadelphia.
This is an appeal to keep an eye on. It is a fascinating examination of the dichotomy between the rights of citizens to have control over their local environment versus the power of corporations to do whatever it takes to maximize their bottom lines. For now, the Court has made its position clear, but the fight goes on. Stay tuned.
Last week a western Pennsylvania federal judge took the extraordinary step of sanctioning two lawyers from the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund, for trying to stop the development of a fracking wastewater injection well in Grant Township by Pennsylvania General Energy, an oil-and-gas exploration company.