Munroe Falls, OH – Last week, Munroe Falls resident Tom Shubert reached a settlement with the cities of Munroe Falls, Cuyahoga Falls, Stow, Tallmadge, and the Village of Silver Lake related to lead contamination at Munroe Falls’ outdoor firing range.
Tom Smith has lived by the Mahoning River his entire life, but it wasn’t until 2011, when his good friend invited him on a kayaking trip, that he had ever considered getting near the river a recreational activity. Today he is a member of the Freshwater Accountability Project (FWAP), our client, and the key standing witness in their successful case involving oil and gas waste polluting one section of the river he has never paddled.
Fair Shake Environmental Legal Services filed an appeal, on behalf of its clients The Sierra Club, Earthworks, Center for Biological Diversity, and FreshWater Accountability Project, challenging a key permit for a massive proposed plastics facility known as an “ethane cracker” in Belmont County. The plant is part of the industry’s push to steeply increase U.S. plastic production.
To date and without any explanation of its consideration of the Pennsylvania Constitution's Environmental Rights Amendment, the Pennsylvania Environmental Hearing Board has put the burden of proving any objections to environmental permits, such as an inadequately sized geologic barrier between a newly proposed mine and an abandoned mine, on ill-equiped individuals and community organizations. 25 Pa. Code § 1021.122(c). Therefore, the most effective environmental permit challenges in PA are those where unsupported permit conditions are made practical, impactful and reasoned, which should make those conditions better. Defeating a permit is hard under these circumstances.
The process of challenging an environmental permit involves all-out litigation - factual & legal theory development, motions that whittle away at those theories and the parties respective budgets, hiring and working with scientific and engineering experts who can intelligently educate the judge on her expert opinion about the permit and its protectiveness. Then there's a lengthy trial where the administrative law judge sits as judge and jury. It's a three-party trial that typically pits an individual or community against a powerfully-aligned governmental agency and industry. Going to trial does not often yield the exact results sought. It's an expensive, and because of the inexplicable and unjust burden of proof rule, incredibly risky proposition to rely on the Board's hearing process to achieve reasonable results through a hearing on the merits.
Since we are, after all, lawyers as counselors instead of lawyers as monotonous predictors of the outcome of single court or administrative arguments, we can look at the permit challenge process as an opportunity to secure better results than what a full hearing on the merits may be able to achieve if the industrial party and community organization or individual party are willing to discuss settlement. Without fail, what my clients are seeking in this process is to be heard and valued for what they have to add to the decisionmaking process. So, in any process that I engage in for my clients, I seek to fulfill the objective of adding that client's value to the decisionmaking process.
One of the best ways to ensure that your client is valued in environmental decisionmaking is to both maximize their access to information and data AND to give them as much future opportunity to enforce against violations of a permit (or a settlement agreement) in the future. In a hotly contested and well-funded coal mining permit challenge called Mountain Watershed Association v. DEP and LCT Energy Co. (Rustic Ridge Mine No. 1 case) we achieved that twofold objective in a way that should be replicated.
In the Rustic Ridge case, we achieved the following:
· Barriers: 800 foot barrier increased to 1400 foot horizontal barrier between the Melcroft No. 3 abandoned mine & the new Rustic Ridge No. 1 Mine; a piezometer will be placed in the barrier to detect water level changes that would indicate an illicit discharge to the Melcroft No. 3; and quarterly monitoring and more frequent monitoring the closer the mining comes to the barrier of that piezometer goes to MWA.
· Temperature: relocation of the wastewater outfall to a downstream location just prior to the confluence with Champion Creek.
· Flow: 1500 gpm flow from dewatering of the coal seam reduced to 1,000 gpm to ensure that streambed erosion does not occur.
· Noise & blasting: eliminated fan shaft & return shaft through development of three slopes in the pit; location of variable frequency fan underground during slope development; peak particle velocity limited to 1.0 inch per second; air blast limited to 126 db; seismograph installed at home nearest to mine & readings from the seismograph go to MWA.
· Lighting: dark sky & canopy lighting to be used.
· Information: Discharge Monitoring Reports, pumping rates & six month mining map to be provided to MWA regularly.
This settlement, which likely looks incredibly practical and reasonable, marks the first time in years that my client actually felt heard in the permit appeal process. On many occassions, we reached out to the governmental decisionmakers to try to make the exact points that the settlement agreement ultimately rested upon. The governmental attorney's response to our requests? Either that there's no need to meet or that my client has the ability to comment on the permit in the same way as everyone else. It is more than fair to criticize the PA governmental attorneys' apparent inability to do anything other than work to obstruct individuals and community organization's ability to be heard and valued.
It's not just the governmental attorney at fault. There's absolutely no reason that industries seeking permits cannot start the process of valuing the community in which they seek to operate long before a permit is even in draft form. If lawyers for those industrial users choose to push things through bureaucratic processes without valuing individuals and communities, then they should expect that hearings on the merits will focus on creating value by increased recordkeeping and data development as permit conditions, and by reducing environmental impact through more stringent pollution control requirements subject to citizen enforcement.
The way to engage in these otherwise lopsided hearing processes and ensure that you are meeting your client's objective of being valued in the environmental decisionmaking process is to see the attorney's role - for the industrial client, for the individual or community organization, and even for the government - as a true counselor, which involves much more than simply predicting the outcome of a legal argument. Lawyers as counselors can build value in all parts of the community and build community wealth. Use the settlement between a small watershed association and a coal mine as your guide for the possibilities.
I have to stretch my memory to recall a time when I have heard the word “jurisdiction” used outside of the realm of legal beagles. The best I can do is to think of various times when a police or fire vehicle appears in a completely different city or town than the one displayed on the side of the vehicle. When that happens, we’ll often say: “I wonder what she’s doing outside of her jurisdiction?” As a general matter, most people seem to understand, then, that jurisdiction refers to the area where that governmental actor has power to do something.