In the thick of Pennsylvania's coalfields, the little Borough of Kulpmont passed the nation's strongest mercury and dioxin air pollution law, stopping a crematorium proposed in a residential neighborhood. It was challenged and upheld in federal court.
We wrote this ordinance as one of several we've drafted to help communities stop proposed polluters. Using the power that some states grant to their local governments to adopt air pollution laws stricter than state or federal law, the ordinances require that air polluters continuously monitor a variety of pollutants, disclose the info real-time to a public website, and set strict emissions standards. To date, polluters have chosen to give up, rather than be subject to such protective requirements.
For most states, we've mapped out whether your state laws allow your local government to adopt stricter air or waste laws. With support from the Heinz Endowments, we've developed a guide for Stopping Polluters with Local Ordinances in Pennsylvania. Much of the advice in the guide is useful in other states as well, but you should consult us on the legal authority specific to your state.
Taking the initiative: If your local government is hopeless and you can't just "kick the bums out" (more on that below), you might be able to put an ordinance on the ballot, going around your local officials and bringing it straight to the people. Most states allow initiatives in some or all of their local governments. Ballotpedia has mapped this out in a page on laws governing local ballot measures.
Democracy ordinances: Let's not stop at blocking polluters. Corporations are controlling our government, and we need clean elections if we don't want to be fighting an endless series of battles against bad development ideas. We're starting to explore ideas for local democracy ordinances, to clean up and democratize our government from the bottom up, starting in your city, town or county. There are over 20 ways to clean up our elections, most of which are focused on the state or federal level. We believe it'll really come to life when local governments show the way.
If you'd like our support in developing a local environmental or democracy law you can push in your own community, please be in touch! Also, check out the resources we have online at www.energyjustice.net/ordinances
Why Local Ordinances?
There is a long history of successful community opposition to polluting industries, especially in stopping proposals before they're built. This is true for a range of polluting industries, including: nuclear facilities, coal, oil and gas power plants, oil and biofuel refineries, landfills, biomass and waste incinerators, and crematoria.
The two most common ways that grassroots groups stop proposed polluters are: 1) Appeal state permits until company gives up and investors walk away; 2) Community gets it stopped through local government.
The first route is risky. Permit appeals rarely actually win. Usually, it's the delay that kills projects once investors walk away. The risk is that -- as community members disengage, expecting lawyers to handle it -- groups often lose their ability to fundraise to keep the legal challenge going and then lose altogether.
If your group is resourced enough to tackle both a legal challenge and the local politics, that's great, but if you have to choose where to allocate resources, your best chances are usually at the local political level. This is usually true no matter how corrupt and hopeless things might seem in local government. It's not easier at the state or federal levels.
The local ordinance approach is a powerful way to win, as it involves setting stricter standards than state and federal laws. If the ordinance is drafted properly, if passed, there’s a good chance that it'll succeed.
There are two ways to get a law passed: by the elected officials voting to adopt it, or by bringing the matter directly to the voters through an initiative petition in the places where such rights exist. If you're lucky enough to be in a place that has an initiative process, and if your local officials are not completely cooperative, exerting your right to an initiative is a great way to go.
Taking the Initiative
Initiative is (usually) a method for citizens to propose and pass a new ordinance without having to rely on the cooperation of the local legislature. You'd collect signatures from your fellow residents who are registered to vote, present the petition to the municipality and if the council doesn't want to pass it themselves, it goes to the ballot for the people to decide.
The process and details for initiatives vary massively from place to place, so your first step is always to find the local and state rules that apply, and read them very, very carefully. However, there are some fairly common elements in the process.
1. Petitioners Committee. A certain minimum number (usually 5, but as low as 1 and as high as 50) of "qualified electors" (i.e., registered voters) request a petition from the local government's Clerk or Manager or Secretary.
2. Petitioning Period. You (usually) have a limited number of days during which to get signatures from qualified electors. It can range anywhere from about three weeks to three months.
3. Signature Requirement. The petition must be signed by a certain minimum number of qualified electors. Find out from your county elections board how many signatures you need and get the proper forms.
4. Know the circulation rules. Get good legal advice on who can collect signatures. Does a circulator have to live in the local jurisdiction, or anywhere in the state? Do they need to be a registered voter, or at least eligible to vote?
5. Notarization. You must get each petition sheet notarized.
6. Validation. A local official will check that the signatures and notarizations are valid, and if there are enough signatures, then the clerk presents the petition to the governing body.
7. Consideration. The governing body may choose to pass the ordinance.
8. Ballot. If they don't, then it goes to the board of elections to appear on the ballot at an upcoming election.
Why You Should Run for Local Office
1) It talks to local officials in a language they understand -- their political future. They can ignore you forever if you're speaking before them, but not if you're challenging their seat directly.
2) It gets you media coverage you'd normally not get. You can hold a sign on a street corner forever and get ignored, but the moment you're a candidate, you're news.
3) It forces you to do the sort of organizing you ought to be doing anyway, and within a time frame: talking to lots of people one-on-one, whether at the polls or at their doors beforehand.
4) No matter how hopeless it seems, your chances of winning change are always strongest at the local level. It's far easier to win there than in the courts, in the state legislature, before regional commissions, or before the companies themselves.
One of the hardest parts can be finding people willing to run. If good people don't run for office, who will?
Sometimes people feel that they aren't qualified to be an elected official. If that's the case, have them attend public meetings and witness the local officials in action. Ask people to think about whether they can do a better job than those they see in the front of the room at these meetings. Sadly, in many cases, the answer will be an easy "yes."
Candidates need support. It takes time and money to run. It doesn't take huge amounts of money, compared to larger elections, but printing materials, making signs, distributing them... all takes time and money. It'll be easier to convince someone good to run if you can get them help getting copies donated, babysitting their kids, or whatever other sort of support they need.
Trust is also key. Make sure you're running people you know are in it for the right reasons. Opportunists abound, and we've heard numerous examples where local activists get someone elected, just to have them sell out once in office.
Energy Justice Now provides critical reporting on the full spectrum of the Dirty Energy Resistance, highlighting the voices of community organizers
battling fossil fuels, nuclear power, and biomass and waste incineration
from sea to shining sea.
We are accepting submissions at Josh AT energyjustice DOT net.
Check out our archive of back issues of Energy Justice Now.
Mike Ewall, Josh Schlossberg, and Samantha Chirillo
Editors, Energy Justice Now
Donate to and join Energy Justice Network.
Two Ways to Stop Polluters
The two most common ways that grassroots groups stop proposed polluters are:
Appeal state permits until company gives up and investors walk away
-Takes place in distant courtrooms
-Community members disengage
-Plays within existing rules that allow pollution
-Does not build power
-Hard to provide this sort of legal support to all the grassroots groups needing it
Community gets it stopped through local government
-Takes place in local town hall
-Community gets engaged
-Can write new rules to stop pollution
-Builds power for future local victories
-Ordinances easily replicable; can support many grassroots groups with this strategy
Energy Justice Network is helping communities develop strict local environmental ordinances that hold up in court and set new standards for how industries must operate.
To see what local ordinance options are possible in your state, and for help in crafting a model ordinance for your situation, contact Mike Ewall, Esq. at 215-436-9511 or email@example.com
Local Ballot Measures
- by Ballotpedia
While only 24 states allow statewide initiatives, many states allow initiative at the local level.
Besides initiatives, veto referendums, bonds, recalls and
legislative referrals also appear on local ballots around the country.
A Ballotpedia publication released in December 2012
identifies 48 states that allow some form of binding initiative and
referendum at the local level.
For more information on local ballots (and the legend for the graphic above) go to ballotpedia.org.
State Ballot Measures -- What Can Go Wrong
Outrage in Colorado
- by Lauren McCauley, Common Dreams
what is being slammed as a hijacking of the democratic process -- and a
cave to pressure by the oil and gas industry -- top Colorado Democrats
have pulled two anti-fracking initiatives from the state's November
ballot despite huge grassroots support behind the proposals.
On the day Rep. Jared Polis (D-Colo.) was expected to hand
in nearly 300,000 signatures in favor of ballot initiatives 88 and 89,
which sought to provide greater local control over fracking operations,
he announced that he had dropped support for the measures in favor of a
deal brokered by Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper. Instead of allowing
citizens to vote on shale oil and gas drilling in their communities, the
politicians announced during a joint press conference that they are
establishing a task force -- led by XTO Energy President Randy Cleveland
and taking input from business groups along with the oil and gas
industry -- that will craft drilling regulations.
Polis' about-face met with immediate condemnation from residents who supported the measures.
are outraged to see politicians once again prioritizing political
expediency over the health and well being of Coloradans. The proposed
compromise represents a failure on the part of both Polis and
Hickenlooper to protect Coloradans from the dangers of fracking," said
Russell Mendell of Frack Free Colorado.
Local environmentalists responded with an open letter to
Polis, charging, "Your actions prove that we not only have an
environmental crisis, but also a democracy crisis."
Texas Bans Fracking Bans
- by Earthworks
reaction to successes with local ordinances is that some regressive
state legislatures are banning the local authority for them. Texas and Oklahoma
are banning local fracking bans and some Oregon legislators are seeking
to ban local ordinances that ban GMO crops/foods. Vigilance is needed
to ensure that states don't get away with subverting democracy when
people start using it!
May 18, 2015, Texas Governor Abbott signed HB 40 into law. Written by
former ExxonMobil lawyer Shannon Ratliff, the statute forces every Texas
municipality wanting common sense limits on oil and gas development to
demonstrate its rules are "commercially reasonable." It effectively
overturns a Denton ballot initiative banning fracking that passed last
"HB 40 was written by the oil and gas industry, for the oil
and gas industry, to prevent voters from holding the oil and gas
industry accountable for its impacts," said Earthworks' Texas organizer
Wilson, who played a key role in the Denton ballot
initiative, continued, "It was the oil and gas industry's contempt for
impacted residents that pushed Denton voters to ban fracking in the
first place. And now the oil and gas industry, through state lawmakers,
has doubled down by showing every city in Texas that same contempt."