Rural areas kicking out corporations
- 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
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
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
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
WORLD VIEW NEWS SERVICE
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