Packer Township wins Round One of AG's sewer sludge suit
JOE PLASKO/TIMESNEWS File Photo Ben Price of the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund, shown here in a 2008 photo, has argued that the state's ACRE Law violates a municipality's inalienable right to self-government, such as in the case of Packer Township's sludge ordinance.
Round one of Packer Township's fight to regulate the use of sewage sludge within its boundaries has been won by the township, though the battle is just beginning.
Last week, the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania ruled against the State Attorney General Tom Corbett and in favor of the township, which has an ordinance banning corporate sludge spreading within their municipality.
Corbett had filed a lawsuit on August, 2009, claiming that Packer's sludge ordinance violated the state's "ACRE" law, which prohibits local governments from regulating "normal agricultural operations" and empowers the Attorney General to sue those municipalities.
In its ruling, Commonwealth Court denied AG Corbett's motion requesting that the Court overturn Packer's ordinance.
The case, Communwealth of Pa. vs. Packer Township, 432 MD 2009, will now move toward trial.
At the heart of the case is the argument whether or not sewage sludge land application is a "normal agricultural operation" and if it constitutes a direct threat to human health and safety.
The lawsuit against Packer is one of about a dozen lawsuits filed by the Attorney General's office against ordinances adopted by rural Pa. communities.
Pa. Act 38, known the the ACRE law, was adopted in 2005. ACRE is an acronym for Agriculture, Communities and Rural Environment.
The ACRE law is supposed to protect the use of fertilizers such as manure, and other nutrient land applications and prevent municipalities from passing regulations interferring with those uses. Individuals may challenge local ordinances through ACRE and the Attorney General's office.
The use of biosolids, also known as sewage sludge, as fertilizer has created controversy, however.
Biosolids is a term coined by the sewage treatment industry and refers to the byproduct of domestic and commercial sewage and wastewater treatment. Opponents of the use of sludge for agriculture claim it contains toxic substances such as polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and dioxins.
The Packer ordinance, adopted in September, 2008, bans corporate sludging within the township, citing the dangers that land applied sewage sludge poses to the community and the natural environment.
The ordinance also holds violators responsible for "chemical trespass" if any of the toxins from sludge material are found in the bodies of residents or within the environment.
The Packer Township Supervisors recently spoke at a state rally in Harrisburg which urged the legislature to overturn the ACRE law.
Thomas J. Gerhard, chairman of the Packer Township Supervisors, vowed that the township would continue to fight the state.
"We're in this to the bitter end," declared Gerhard. "We believe that the state's override of our right to govern ourselves in our own community violates our constitutional right to self-government. We're going to defend local control at all costs."
Ben Price, projects director for the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund, the Chambersburg law firm which crafted the ordinance and is representing Packer Township in the litigation, explained that "this fight isn't just about sewage sludge, but the right of Pa. communities to decide what happens in their own municipality.
"We believe that every community in Pa. has an inalienable and fundamental right to local self-government, and we'll continue to aggressively defend Packer's ordinance against these actions by the Pa. legislature and Attorney General Corbett."
Corbett, however, has been quoted as stating that municipalities do not have an inalienable right to self-government, which has served as a rallying cry for those opposed to the ACRE law.