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3.12.03

PA Farmers Take Action

Consent Of The Governed

In 1997, the state of Pennsylvania began enforcing a weak waste-disposal law, passed at the urging of agribusiness lobbyists several years earlier, which explicitly barred townships from passing any more stringent law. It had the effect of repealing the waste-disposal regulations of more than one hundred townships, regulations that had prevented corporations from establishing factory farms in their communities. The supervisors, who had seen massive hog farms despoil the ecosystems and destroy the social and economic fabric of communities in nearby states, were desperate to find a way to protect their townships. ...

But factory hog farms weren't the only threat introduced by the state's industry-backed regulation. The law also served to preempt local control over the spreading of municipal sewage sludge on rural farmland. In Pittsburgh and other large cities, powerful municipal treatment agencies, seeking to avoid costly payments to landfills, began contracting with corporate sewage haulers. Haulers, in turn, relied on rural farmers willing to use the sludge as fertilizer -- a practice deemed "safe" by corporate-friendly government environmental agencies. ...

By 1999, with [the legal foundation] CELDF's help, five townships in two counties had adopted a straightforward ordinance that challenged state law by prohibiting corporations from farming or owning farmland. Five more townships in three more counties followed suit. Also in 1999, Rush Township of Centre County became the first in the nation to pass an ordinance to control sludge spreading. Haulers who wanted to apply sewage sludge to farmland would have to test every load at their own expense -- and for a wider array of toxic substances than required by the weaker state law. Three dozen townships in seven counties have unanimously passed similar sludge ordinances to date. Citing a township's mandate to protect its citizens, Licking Township Supervisor Mik Robertson declares, "If the state isn't going to do the job, we'll do it for them."


This is a very interesting article about the extent of corporate power and rights. I would disagree, however, with the author's angle of critique. He adopts a "local sovereignty" perspective (particularly in his section about international trade rules), arguing that the main problem with laws granting corporations power is that they infringe on local governments' ability to do things differently. I'm a bit leery of using this as a basis for critiquing the power of corporations because the same sort of logic has been used to defend local governments putting additional restrictions on the freedom of individuals, even to the point of denying their personhood (cf "states' rights"). We need a more sophisticated framework for deciding what policy decisions should be made at what levels of government, rather than just advocacy either of universal rights or of local sovereignty.

The real problem, as I see it, is not that there's a process violation in not allowing (for example) townships to restrict the use of toxic wastes, but that the state's lax environmental standards are bad in and of themselves. Similarly, corporate personhood is not bad because it limits local governments' ability to regulate corporations, but because it's bad for society at any level to treat corporations as persons.

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