GOWANDA - Residents in New York state opposed or concerned about the process of hydrofracking are growing more concerned each day as the moratorium expiration draws near. The temporary moratorium on hydrofracking is set to expire this June, when the results of a state-level review by the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) are due to be released.
At the Gowanda Moose on Sunday, the community activist group, Collins POWR - Protecting Our Water Rights, held a forum on the subject matter and featured a special guest. Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund Project Director Ben Price, whose not-for-profit group was instrumental in Pittsburgh's banning of natural gas extraction, spoke to about 40 Gowanda residents.
"It has to do with the work we do, the Legal Defense Fund, we offer free legal services - drafting local ordinances, consultations - on how to deal with and confront this problem of fracking, from the communities perspective," Price said.
OBSERVER?Photo by Michael Rukavina
Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund Project Director Ben Price speaks and takes questions about civil liberties and fracking from a group of about 40 residents in Gowanda on Sunday at the Gowanda Moose.
Price, who will also be traveling to Ohio, West Virginia and Maryland about the same topic, said, "We don't seek out the work, people are coming to us. This fracking issue is huge. Only over the past year or so have we become heavily involved in it. Communities are very very concerned."
Residents are asking their local municipalities, talking to their attorney's and state representatives about what they can do about hydrofracking, Price says, yet everyone they talk to tells them there isn't much they can do.
"The state in Pennsylvania pre-empts you from doing anything at the local level to regulate the industry. You (New York) won't be much different from Pennsylvania in terms of the status of local governments and municipalities to protect the health, safety and welfare of their community members," Price said referring to the expiration of the moratorium in New York.
The work that the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund does is to work with local governments and community groups to help them "exercise the greatest degree of local self government possible so that they can deal with these issues that have direct local impact."
"We don't have a fracking problem, we have a democracy problem, we have a denial of civil rights and a denial of self governing rights," he said. "That's the problem, the disease ... the symptom is people are getting fracking when they don't want it."
The ordinance adopted in Pittsburgh, and matched similarly in areas such as Homestead, a suburb of Pittsburgh, and in Wales, N.Y., seek to "undo over a hundred years' worth of law in the United States which gives corporations greater rights than the communities in which they do business."
"It does in fact ban gas drilling, but it does a lot more," Price said. "The heart of the law is a local bill of rights, a right to water, a right to community self government, a right to protect the natural environment, a right to use the local government to assert and protect those rights with local laws even in the face of preemptive state law."
Price said creating the local "bill of rights" would essentially be a first step to help deter hydrofracking in one's community.
"We're working with other communities to pass similar laws," Price said. "People are being told by their elected officials that they have no options, and I'm here to say they have one other option and its the one that civil rights movements of the past have used and that is to say act like you have the rights. Just go ahead with the presumption that you have them, and if the state or cooperations feel they want to strip you of the rights make them come out in the open and openly remove your rights so that it's real clear to everyone what the actual problem is."
None of the civil liberty ordinances have been challenged as of yet, Price said, but that doesn't mean that they won't be.
"It changes the legal argument. If we were to put in place an ordinance that just said we're going to zone fracking out under our land use plan that may work for a while in New York. It won't work in Pennsylvania because they've already adjusted the land use laws to forbid municipalities from zoning out anything that is legally permitted by the state," he said. "Under a community rights ordinance, if there is a challenge, essentially the challenger has to come in and say you see this community bill of rights you adopted you don't have those rights, however we do have our right to come in and drill against your consent. There's no guarantee we win that argument but at least it's out in the open that that's what the actual contest is about."
Collins POWR - Protecting Our Water Rights group, which has been running educational forums in an effort to ban hydrofracking will be hosting two other events this week, including, a showing of "Gasland," today in Springville at the Joylan Theatre at 7 p.m.
On Thursday at 7 p.m. a debate will be held on the issue at the Colden Senior Center.
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