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Rural areas kicking out corporations

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    Kicking out corporations by Ken Picard Rural areas revoke corporate personhood in order to reclaim self-rule.
    Message 1 of 1 , Dec 3, 2004
      Kicking out corporations
      by Ken Picard

      Rural areas revoke corporate "personhood" in order to reclaim

      Saturday, October 16, 2004

      Porter Township in northwestern Pennsylvania was an unlikely hotbed
      for an anti-corporate uprising. The tiny rural community about an
      hour north of Pittsburgh has a population of only 1500 people, many
      of whom are staunch Republicans with deeply-held conservative values.

      But after the Alcosan Corporation, a Pennsylvania sewage-sludge
      hauler, threatened to sue Porter Township in 2002 for passing a
      local ordinance regulating the dumping of sludge in their community,
      town officials decided that their citizens had taken enough crap
      from corporations. Literally. So on December 9, 2002, Porter became
      the first municipality in the United States to pass a law denying
      corporations their rights as "persons" under the law. Weeks later,
      Licking Township, another rural Pennsylvania community facing a
      similar lawsuit, passed a more expansive ordinance revoking
      all constitutional rights of corporations within their jurisdiction.

      Since then, dozens of other municipalities across Pennsylvania, some
      with as few as 1000 residents, have followed suit, reversing nearly
      120 years of corporate encroachment on the rights guaranteed to all
      citizens under the US
      Constitution. Prompted by the failure of state and federal regulatory
      agencies to protect citizens' health, safety and quality of life from
      large-scale corporate activities, these municipalities took matters
      into their own hands and reclaimed their right of self-rule. Though
      the laws fly in the face of more than a century's worth of legal
      precedents that say corporations are "persons" protected by the Bill
      of Rights and the 14th Amendment, thus far these ordinances seem to
      be working.

      Now some Vermonters are looking to follow Pennsylvania's example and
      draft similar ordinances here to address environmental and public-
      health problems stemming from large corporate activities: the influx
      of big-box stores, the spreading of toxic sludge, even the proposed
      power increase at the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant. Proponents
      of this strategy suggest that these laws may even be used one day to
      challenge undemocratic principles that were written into the World
      Trade Organization charter and the North American Free Trade

      Championing this fight is Tom Linzey, a 35-year-old Alabama-born
      attorney who is the executive director and co-founder of the
      Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund. Founded in 1995, the
      Pennsylvania-based CELDF was initially set up to provide free legal
      services to small community groups that were fighting big
      environmental battles: toxic-waste incinerators, landfills,
      municipal sludge fields and corporate factory farms. Since then,
      however, the nonprofit law firm has expanded its mission to help
      municipalities around the country roll back corporate rights through
      local ordinances. CELDF conducts "democracy schools" - intensive,
      weekend-long seminars that trace the history of corporate rights and
      help citizens reframe local issues according to a new paradigm. Once
      such democracy school was held two weeks ago in Putney for 20
      Vermonters from the Brattleboro area.

      Linzey, who speaks on September 30 at Vermont Law School, explained
      in a recent interview how this movement began. In the mid- to late-
      1990s, large out-of-state agribusinesses began applying for permits
      to build large-scale hog farms in rural Pennsylvania. Local
      residents, who overwhelmingly opposed these farming operations,
      sought the help of state and federal regulatory agencies like the
      EPA. However, these communities soon realized that waging their
      battle on the regulatory front wouldn't stop undesirable
      businesses from moving into town - it would merely lessen the harm
      those activities caused.

      The proposed factory farms were huge operations - 5000- to 6000-head
      hog farms - that would dwarf neighboring family farms. Before long,
      CELDF was inundated with phone calls from local officials across
      Pennsylvania - some 400 townships in all - seeking their help at
      fending off these corporate farms. So CELDF began researching how
      this issue had been handled in other states, particularly in the
      Midwest, where 300,000- to 400,000-head hog farms are common.

      This was when Linzey made a startling discovery: nine Midwestern
      states have laws banning large corporations from owning or
      controlling farms.

      In fact, Nebraska and South Dakota went so far as to incorporate
      that ban into their state constitutions. So CELDF copied the South
      Dakota constitutional amendment and used it as a model for local
      ordinances. Ten townships and five counties in Pennsylvania have
      adopted the anti-corporate farming ordinance. To date, only one has
      been overturned by the courts.

      During this same period in the 1990s, CELDF also began receiving
      calls from community groups and local officials who were trying to
      stop the permitting of sludge fields. Sludge, the solid-waste
      byproduct of wastewater treatment plants, is not considered
      a "hazardous waste" by the federal government. Although it can
      contain as many as 600,000 different toxic contaminants, the
      US Environmental Protection Agency requires testing for only 11 of
      those contaminants.

      Spreading sludge on farmland, a practice known as "biosolid land
      application," was already a controversial issue in rural Pennsylvania
      because of its impact on human and animal health. In 1995, two
      youths died after coming into contact with a newly applied sludge
      field. In an effort to prevent more sludge from being dumped in
      their communities, 68 Pennsylvania townships passed anti-sludge

      The corporate waste haulers didn't take these ordinances lying down.
      They challenged the laws in court, arguing that townships were
      denying them their constitutional rights and didn't have the legal
      authority to pass these laws. The corporations also tried to hold
      town officials personally liable for passing these laws. They based
      their argument on a federal civil rights law that was passed in the
      aftermath of the Civil War in order to protect African-Americans
      from state-sanctioned discrimination.

      Since these corporate sludge haulers had deep pockets, it wasn't even
      necessary that they win in court. All they had to do was deplete a
      town's financial resources by waging a long and costly legal battle.
      How did CELDF respond? As Linzey explains, CELDF helped Porter and
      Licking townships draft a "Corporate Rights Elimination Ordinance,"
      which effectively stripped the corporation of its right to sue.
      Though these laws were an unprecedented challenge to corporate
      empowerment, they remain in effect today and have yet to be
      challenged in court.

      "Corporate rights sometimes get talked about as some academic or
      abstract concept like something that's taught in a college political
      science class," Linzey says. "Here, what folks have said is that our
      vision for our community does not include land-applied sludge. It
      does not include factory farms. And that's the community we want."

      Critics were quick to label the movement the work of liberal,
      anti-business activists. But as Linzey points out, about 80% of the
      communities he works with are overwhelmingly conservative and
      Republican. "Keep in mind, these are rural township officials with
      the shit-kicker boots and the John Deere hats. These are the guys
      who clear and salt the roads in the wintertime," he says. "These are
      not activists. They are folks who saw a problem and tried to do
      something about it."

      How effective have the ordinances been? Very, says Linzey. "In the 68
      townships that have passed sludge ordinances, not one new teaspoon
      of sludge has been land-applied," he says. The same holds true for
      the ban on corporate hog farms. In the 10 townships that passed anti-
      corporate farm ordinances, Linzey says, not one new corporate hog
      farm has been established, even though those areas were targeted for
      more factory farms.

      Vermont is no stranger to the legal perversion of corporate
      "personhood." In April, 1994, the Vermont Legislature passed the
      nation's first law requiring the labeling of dairy products
      containing the genetically altered growth hormone, rBGH. In
      response, agribusiness giant Monsanto and a coalition of
      dairy-industry groups sued the state, asserting that the law was
      unconstitutional. A federal judge agreed, ruling that the new law
      violated Monsanto's First Amendment right "not to speak."

      Several weeks ago, 20 people from southern Vermont spent a weekend at
      Landmark College in Putney, attending one of CELDF's democracy
      schools. Among them was Larry Bloch, a small-business owner from
      Brattleboro who is with Vermonters Restoring Democracy. It's an
      umbrella organization of groups that deal with issues ranging from
      genetically modified organisms to nuclear power to social and
      economic justice. Though its members come from a variety of
      political backgrounds, what unites them, Bloch explains, is a desire
      to combat corporate dominance over local decision-making.

      "When a predatory corporation comes in and says, 'We're moving in no
      matter what and we don't care if we push out your independently
      owned local businesses,' that doesn't affect only progressives or
      only conservatives," Bloch says. "To hear the stories from
      Pennsylvania was inspiring because these were people who had never
      been activists and weren't blessed with a lot of free time or money
      or the inclination to shake things up."

      Representative Sarah Edwards (P-Brattleboro) agrees. Edwards, who
      alsoattended the democracy school, says the seminar helped reframe
      the debate in her mind, especially on the issue of nuclear
      power. "It's helping me to know who my adversary is," Edwards
      says. "I'm not talking about individuals. I'm talking about the

      "I have friends who work at [Vermont] Yankee. I know management who
      work at Yankee," she adds. "This is not about them. This is about
      the system, the machine of the corporation squeezing out the
      diversity of voices that is necessary to have a good and healthy

      Democracy schools already have been held in six states. By next
      year, there will be five permanent "Daniel Pennock Democracy
      Schools" - named for one of the two boys who died after coming into
      contact with the toxic sludge. In the past, these schools have
      largely addressed environmental issues. But that's charging, Linzey
      notes. Activists in Roxbury, Massachusetts, for example, hope the
      Pennsylvania model can be used to challenge the pharmaceutical
      industry on its policies pertaining to AIDS drugs.

      Others see the approach as a way to counter international agreements
      like NAFTA. John Berkowitz is executive director of Southern
      Vermonters for a Fair Economy and Environmental Protection. He
      points to a law passed in Massachusetts 10 years ago that prohibited
      municipalities from signing contracts with companies that do
      business with Burma - a country with an abysmal human rights record.
      After Japan and the European Union filed a complaint about the law
      with the WTO, in 1997 the US Supreme Court struck down the
      Massachusetts laws as unconstitutional.

      "Wait a minute. Who's deciding what's best for a community?"
      Berkowitz asks. "Is it absentee corporations and people working for
      trade organizations like the WTO? We're finding that people's local
      decision-making abilities are being trumped by trade agreements that
      basically say, 'You can't decide that at the local level.'"

      But as Linzey reminds people who attend CELDF's democracy schools,
      local communities can reclaim the power of self-rule. Like
      hurricanes that feed off warmer waters, the anti-corporate movement
      draws strength through legal provocation. Says Linzey, "This is
      about shifting the paradigm to let people understand that the courts
      do step in to defend community rights over corporate rights."

      Ken Picard is a staff writer for Seven Days. Reprinted with



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