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Packer Township passes sludge law

Published May 06. 2010 05:00PM

The Board of Supervisors for Packer Township voted unanimously on May 4th to adopt an ordinance that enables the municipality to enact and enforce environmental protection standards exceeding those set by the the State legislature.

Passage of the ordinance follows in the wake of Pennsylvania Attorney General Thomas Corbett's lawsuit to overturn an ordinance adopted in 2008 which bans corporate sewage sludge dumping within the Township.

The new ordinance asserts that the "Passage of laws overriding local zoning and land use planning through the Municipalities Planning Code, laws preempting local control over water withdrawals, laws prohibiting communities from regulating or controlling genetically modified seeds and crops, laws eliminating local control over agricultural operations, and laws eliminating local control over the land application of sewage sludge, have violated the right of Packer Township residents to govern their own community.

"The people of Packer Township declare that the building of a sustainable Packer Township requires not only the outright nullification of the doctrine of preemption when it prohibits the people of Packer Township from adopting higher standards than those set forth in state law, but also requires the people of Packer Township to refuse to recognize the authority of the Attorney General or the courts, when those entities attempt to enforce the legislature's illegitimate acts."

The board voted to implement the ordinance following a ruling by the Commonwealth Court on March 17 that let stand all but one provision of the Packer Township Sludge Ordinance, adopted in 2008. Packer Township had amended its sludge ordinance to refuse to recognize the authority of the attorney general to enforce state laws that violate community self-governing rights. It was this provision that the court chose to overturn.

Tom Gerhard, Chairman of the Packer Township Supervisors, said that "we know we're pulling the tiger's tail, but it's not a question of which branch of government is more powerful; it's a matter of right and wrong. It's about justice and the denial of justice by the state, the legislature, the courts and the attorney general."

In another municipal sludge ordinance case, Corbett's office had argued that "there is no inalienable right to local self-government" (Corbett vs. East Brunswick, January 31, 2008). Claiming authority to sue to overturn the entire Packer Township Sludge Ordinance, Corbett filed suit against Packer and on behalf of corporate waste haulers in August of 2009.

The attorney general requested the court nullify the ordinance without going to trial and that the panel of judges find the ordinance void as a matter of law.

The opinion filed on March 17 of this year stated that "Corbett's Motion for Summary Relief is granted with respect to the amendment removing the authority of the Attorney General to enforce state law. The Motion for Summary Relief is denied with respect to all remaining issues."

How quickly the sewage sludge ordinance law suit moves forward in a politically packed year is up to the office of the attorney general. The state's claim that dumping sewage sludge in rural communities is a "normal agricultural activity" protected by the state's "Right to Farm" law will be one of the questions of fact before the court, as will the question of who has the right to govern in the municipalities of Pennsylvania; corporate Boards of Directors and state regulatory agencies, or the people who live and raise families in those communities.

The case is Commonwealth of Pennsylvania v. Packer Township, 432 MD 2009.

The Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund, located in Chambersburg, has been working with people in Pa. since 1995 to assert their fundamental rights to democratic local self-governance, and to enact laws which end destructive and rights-denying corporate action aided and abetted by state and federal governments.

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