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Enviro Lawyers assert ‘rights of nature’ in PA wastewater suit

  • 21 November 2014
  • networx

itEllen M. Gilmer, E&E reporter

Published: Thursday, November 20, 2014

A federal court battle over a Pennsylvania township’s ban on wastewater injection wells took an unusual turn this week as environmental lawyers filed a motion to intervene on behalf of, well, the environment.

The district court filing comes after Pennsylvania General Energy Co. sued Grant Township — east of Pittsburgh in Indiana County — for banning disposal of oil and gas wastewater within township borders. Drilling company PGE had applied to convert an existing oil and gas well to a wastewater disposal well in the township, but its U.S. EPA permit was challenged and remains under review within the agency.

“This lawsuit, brought by the gas industry to overturn a democratically enacted law, threatens the rights of both human and natural communities,” Thomas Linzey, executive director of the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund, said in a statement. “This represents the first time an ecosystem is seeking to defend its legally enforceable rights to exist and flourish by intervening in a lawsuit.”

The motion names the Little Mahoning Watershed as a natural community with legal standing under Grant Township’s Community Bill of Rights. The watershed is joined by a more traditional party, the East Run Hellbenders Society, a grass-roots group of local environmental advocates.

The idea of granting legal rights to nature is novel in the United States. The CELDF has worked with several small communities to adopt “rights of nature” since 2006, but the concept remains untested in courts.

Attorneys for PGE have not yet responded to the filing but maintain in legal briefs that the wastewater ban is discriminatory and that the township lacks authority to control activities regulated by state and federal agencies.