FLOW’s organizing principle is the public trust doctrine. What sounds like an exotic concept is quite simple. This 1500-year-old principle of common law holds that there are some resources, like water and submerged lands, that by their nature cannot be privately owned. Rather, this commons – including the Great Lakes — belongs to the public. And governments, like the State of Michigan, have a responsibility to protect public uses of these resources. We explicitly address public trust concerns on what we’re calling Public Trust Tuesday.
New York’s Love Canal was once an instantly recognizable label to most Americans. In 1980, after toxic waste from an old chemical dump began to ooze up in the yards of a housing development built atop the dump, authorities evacuated the neighborhood. Love Canal became a national symbol of chemical mismanagement, and the impetus for the Superfund cleanup program.
Michigan officials looking for toxic waste dumps and spill sites affecting groundwater found them everywhere. That, coupled with public concern about everything from health effects to depressed property values, prompted the Legislature and voters to kick in more than $1 billion in state funds for groundwater cleanup.
And then something happened.
In 1995, state policy changed. Instead of striving to remove all contamination, Michigan went to a risk-based approach – meaning contamination could remain in the ground if means could be put to work to limit the exposure of human beings to these poisons. These means could be everything from a concrete cap atop contaminated soil to a local ordinance prohibiting the drilling of new wells into contaminated groundwater.
That saved businesses legally responsible for the contamination considerable money, but it also fostered the spread of contaminants in groundwater in many locations – often groundwater once used for drinking water.
The Michigan DEQ estimates that contaminated groundwater is coming out of the ground and discharging to lakes, streams or wetlands at approximately 1,000 locations in Michigan. It’s as if 1,000 new (and sloppy) chemical plants were sited in Michigan and were allowed to have lax or no controls on the pollution they are sending into our common waters.
The public trust doctrine holds that certain natural resources like navigable waters are preserved in perpetuity for public use and enjoyment, and that government has a duty to safeguard these uses as a trustee on behalf of the public. By allowing contaminated groundwater to spread and pollute surface water, the State of Michigan has failed to fulfill its public trust obligations. It’s not only a breach of the public trust in water, it’s a potentially grave threat to the health of our citizens.
The waters of the Great Lakes are held in trust by the state as a shared public commons for the benefit of citizens for navigation, boating, fishing, health and sustenance. The courts of all eight Great Lakes states have recognized this principle, which means the states must manage these waters as a trustee for the benefit of all citizens to prevent interference with these public purposes – a duty of stewardship.
Net-pen fish-farming in the Great Lakes poses a major interference with existing protected riparian and public uses of these hallowed waters – landowners, fishermen, boaters, tourists, and citizens. Private fish farming would displace and interfere with the public trust in these waters.
A recent article on the New York Times Opinion Editorial Page features the public trust doctrine as basis for citizens, including the children atmospheric trust cases, to bring court actions to order governments to take affirmative action to drastically reduce greenhouse gases and minimize climate change. All water, air, and wildlife are legally viewed as public commons. Water and other commons that are special, rare, unique or endangered are protected specifically by the public trust doctrine. Certainly, the atmosphere, which is actually a hydrosphere connected to public trust water, at this time in history is rare, endangered, and tied directly to devastating harm to this and future generations, including our navigable public trust waters and their tributaries. These court cases and similar efforts are growing evidence of a paradigm shift in this country to protecting our commons; they are public, necessary for health and life, and do not belong to any one private interest or sector. The public trust duties require affirmative action in perpetuity to protect citizens rights to water an air under public trust principles. Our federal and state governments have inherent and significant authority to fulfill these duties, and must do so now, without our children having to be surrogates for government and the rest of us. There is no excuse to wait, by government or the fossil fuel industry; failure to take action and waiting and stalling, or patterns of interference in protecting water and air from climate change will impose liability on them.
Attorney, Olson, Bzdok & Howard, P.C., Traverse City
When I look back over the past year, I can’t help but feel hope in the common goodness of people and communities.
I say this not without heart felt and serious concern about events in the world that point in the opposite direction – despair: increasing violence from guns, war, and sweeping droughts and floods, causing death and dislocation of millions of people and children, global warming and the push-back from unprecedented storms and extreme weather that compound drought, floods, landslides, which in turn destabilize countries like Syria fomenting conflict and conditions for ISIS. To paraphrase Circle of Blue senior journalist Keith Schneider, “The earth is angry and she’s fighting back.”
Closer to home, Detroit water shut-offs continue despite the devastating impact on the poor who can’t afford to pay a normal water bill, let alone the $100 a month or more claimed by the Detroit Water Board. State leaders finally stop denying the Flint water-crisis more than a year after residents demanded help, that its children and residents were exposed to high levels of lead from the city’s public water system. The problem is more endemic than Detroit or Flint, since both crises grew out of the unbridled power of Governor Snyder’s emergency manager law to usurp the power of city assets and revenues to pay debts regardless of the impacts to citizens. Flint’s emergency manager thought only of economic expediency in turning off water supplied from Detroit, and tapping into the filthy, polluted Flint River. Then there is the continual threat from the flow of oil in the aging, nearly 63-year old Line 5 pipeline under the Straits; the harm from a release or leak would be so catastrophic, the risk is unacceptable to everyone; yet the flow of oil continues without immediate temporary measures while state officials continue to study it as if it was an “issue,” and not the clear and imminent endangerment of the Great Lakes and the Straits of Mackinac – the fact is there is enough capacity within the pipeline system in the Great Lakes without Line 5 endangering the Straits.
So why the hope? Other events have happened this past year that point to a new way of understanding and, perhaps, solving many of the threats that we face in the world and our communities.
First, Pope Francis issued his encyclical on climate change and the environment, connecting the reality of our excessive consumptive materialism, global inequality, poverty, ecological and community devastation, and violence that follows. He carefully documented that our way of seeing and doing, our post-modern god of the law of free markets and legally justified greed, our fragmented attempts at dishing out money to help the poor are not working. He says this because we are living a material, market place illusion, and not in harmony with the reality that the earth is our “common home,” and that if we do not share its gifts and respect its inherent natural limits, earth’s water, weather, soil, and the biological diversity on which all life depends will continue to worsen to even greater extremes. He points to a new paradigm, a framework in which we work and live with the understanding that a body of water, whether ocean, Grand Traverse Bay, or Lake Chad, are a commons, part of the gift of earth as commons to all. If we do this, not only with water, but the ridge lines and forests, the beauty and land that are home to our relationships, our cities, the neighborhoods within our towns, the soils beneath our feet, the air we breathe, then we will begin to reshape our life around truth and the given limits of nature, and this will guide our living, our way of life, or economy, full and rich with newly directed creative and sustainable opportunities and entrepreneur ship.
Second, amidst a world of conflicts, from Syria to the Ukraine, from our own cities, to Nigeria, Sudan, and Afghanistan, and in the aftermath of the mass murders from extreme terrorists in Parrs, the nations of the world cooperated: leaders of large and small, developed and developing, or undeveloped countries, recognized the responsibility to each other, agreed to something, the world temperature will not rise more 2 degrees, and maybe less. While it is not law yet, if taken implemented, it will help stave off global calamity greater than two world wars last century, by reducing the irreparable damage we face from climate change and global warming. There is hope in the agreement that we stop denying and see the mounting harm and set a goal that through hard-work and common sacrifice offers a way out of an unthinkable alternative for people everywhere.
Third, we witnessed the bridging of differences by our Supreme Court in precedent setting cases that demand human dignity for marriage between two people, human rights to housing and water for the poor without access, as wells as the genuine search for a common goal to address wasteful and harmful water rights in the middle of the historical California droughts.
Fourth, our political debate heating up even before the 2016 presidential election has pointed to something more than the old, increasingly polarized beliefs in market economy, through money at wars and problems, rather than considering the root of the problem might be the way we are looking at them. Regardless of my own or others’ political persuasion, there is a fresh voice in Bernie Sanders, laying out the case for a community based on sharing of wealth, taking care of neighbors, and our neighborhood, what Pope Francis calls our “common home,” and at the same time helping with services to the poor, respecting and honoring diversity, and encouraging new business innovation. We have been trapped in this country in a red and blue, right and left, straight-jacket of false ideology, rather than identifying those things that are essential to every one of us and providing for them as principle of our country—the common good.
Fifth, then Michael Moore comes out with his latest film Where to Invade Next? Good God, here we have the message that we here in the USA had the idea, come up with the ideas, of common good, yet go in the opposite direction of individualized competition based on a law of the jungle called free markets. Everything is about profit and money and bottom line. The world is not a corporation, it is a commons in which corporations organizations are simply a means, not an end.
Do we really have a choice? Our common home and communities are simultaneously local and global. It’s not just act locally, think globally, or act globally, think locally. It’s all of this and more. If we don’t act, for example, on climate change, or understand that climate change is not just an energy issue but about water and food, if we don’t move toward a renewable economy within a few years, small island countries will literally disappear, rainforests and biodiversity will disappear, coastal cities and other areas will increasingly flood and fail from even more extreme storm events or the day-to-day failure to change, adapt and embrace resilient cooperation—the common good. All one has to do is read through “4 Degrees Turn Down the Heat: Climate Extremes, Regional Impacts, and the Case for Resilience,” a report published by renown scientists and even sponsored by the more conservative World Bank. The picture is not pretty, and it would it is ignorant, even immoral, at this time in history not to act, even out of self-interest, for this common good.
So I end this year and start the next with hope. At FLOW, the Great Lakes and Water Policy Center, here in Traverse City, and other organizations throughout the region, we have chosen as a mission and goal to protect the waters of the Great Lakes basin as a commons with principles, known as the public trust doctrine, that require government as trustee and people as beneficiaries, to work together to respect and protect water and community that depend on it from impairment. Private control of public waters and other public commons has always been prohibited; this is because some things essential to all of us are common to all of us. If we don’t protect the commons, we undermine the air, water, community and neighborhoods where we live. To work and live toward the common good is to work for the commons and at the same time work for yourself, family and friends. To not work for the common good, is to continue the long, slow, or perhaps not so slow, disintegration that leads to destruction of the earth, water, air, community, people, and leads to a world violent and unsafe.
It is hopeful and reassuring to see positive events pointing toward this new way of seeing, understanding and doing – living and working for the protection and sustainability of our common home and the common good. They are one and the same. Here’s to another hopeful New Year.
We can be thankful that nations of the world have opened the door to the foyer to address climate change. Most encouraging is the senses of cooperation to protect this home we call earth.
The other end of the promise and hope of the Paris accord is the reality that the thick tail of climate change has been rampaging and will continue to do so, erasing soil, melting glaciers, flooding and erasing people, landscapes and communities from the face of the earth.
Keith Schneider, NY Times journalist and senior editor at Circle of Blue, once again, in his true to form visionary hard-core journalism, lays bare this reality in his article in the New York Times. The whipsawing swing of climate has, is, and will strike hard. In the midst of humanity’s hope, so the message is clear: We must face reality, start the change, start finding and living the new renewable life, move toward inevitable near fossil-fuel free economies and lives, and we must do so as fast as possible to shift to the inevitable renewable energy economy.
Many places and people need this, we owe it to them as co-citizens. We owe it to ourselves and our children, and the unborn children to come. Earth is our common home — as Pope Francis puts it in his encyclical on climate and sustainable environment and communities. And, in the middle of this change, there is another shift, one that is based in ancient and modern principles — the commons of this world — air, water, soil, species, life itself, and the liberty of humans, depend on understanding and respecting this commons. To do this, we must view and manage these as held in trust, a public trust, one that brings us to an ethical and legally implemented framework that manages and passes on these commons by maintaining or restoring a sustainable integrity of air, water, soil, species, including we sapiens, for centuries to come.
If we can shift to seeing our individual goals, dreams, needs as dependent on and fostered by the commons, we can solve these threats with incredible resilience, creativity, cooperation and entrepreneurship. But we must start this shift in paradigm to a comprehensive, unifying principle of commons and public trust now – in 2016– to guide our decisions, force the right decisions that if not made trespass on and impair the commons in violation of this trust, so that we truly solve these threats at the level of the problem. If we do this, the gift this Christmas may be the protection of liberty and dignity and survival that depend on this, a gift of reality that encourages us to change along the lines of both the hope and reality of climate change and our future.
Another state court confirms that the 3,200 miles of Great Lakes shoreline are owned by states in public trust for citizens to enjoy for walking, swimming, sunbathing and similar beach and water related activities on public trust lands below the Ordinary High Water Mark (“OHWM”).
When Indiana was carved out of the Northwest Territories and joined the United States in 1816, the State took title in trust for all waters of Lake Michigan and all land below the OHWM along the state’s 45-mile shoreline.
In 2012, the lakefront owners on Lake Michigan in Long Beach, Indiana, filed a lawsuit against the town of Long Beach, claiming they owned all of the land to the waters’ edge. Lakefront owners asked the trial court judge to prohibit any interference with their private property by town residents and the city who used the beach as public for walking, sunbathing, swimming, and picnicking since the town was incorporated. A group of local residents and homeowners organized into the Long Beach Community Alliance (“LBCA”), and intervened in the dispute to defend their public right of access for walking and recreation over the wide strip of white sugar sand between the shoreline and the retaining walls and yards of the lakefront owners. The Alliance for the Great Lakes (“AGA”) headquartered in nearby Chicago, and Save the Dunes (“STD”), a nonprofit organization dedicated to protecting the dunes on Indiana’s shoreline, also intervened to protect the interests of their members who were citizens of Indiana and used and enjoyed the Lake Michigan shore.
In late December 2013, the trial judge ruled that the lakefront landowners could not interfere with the town or residents’ efforts to pass ordinances recognizing the land below the OHWM belonged to the state and was held in public trust for residents and citizens of Indiana.
Not satisfied, the lakefront owners appealed to the Indiana Court of Appeals. In 2014, the appellate court recognized the trial judge’s ruling below, but remanded the matter back to the trial court for a more comprehensive decision on the State’s title and the public trust in the shoreline. The court reasoned that the State of Indiana had not been made a party in the local suit, a prerequisite for a court ruling on a landownership and pubic trust shoreline dispute.
Another lakefront owner pressed forward with a related new lawsuit, again claiming ownership to the waters’ edge, based on their deeds that, they argued, gave them title to the waters’ edge, even if that meant their title cut off the rights of citizens of Indiana to the shoreline below the OHWM. This time the state was named a defendant, and the LBCA, AGA, and STD once more intervened.
It’s common knowledge that Lake Michigan water levels have fluctuated about 6 feet between highs and lows since the federal government started keeping records in 1860. In the late 1980s, the water levels and wave action threatened the lakefront owners’ retaining walls and homes. In 2013, the year the first court ruling came down, the water levels were so low, the distance from the waters’ edge to the lakefront owners’ retaining walls was wider than the length of a football field.
While the knowledge may not be so common for many citizens, the U.S. Supreme Court and the courts of states abutting the Great Lakes have routinely ruled that each state took title to the waters and lands of the Great Lakes up to the OHWM. In 1892, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that all of the Great Lakes’ waters and bottomlands to this ordinary high water mark are owned by the states in trust for all citizens. The Illinois legislature deeded one square mile of Lake Michigan on Chicago’s waterfront to the Illinois Central Railroad company for an industrial complex. However, the Supreme Court voided the deed, and found that the public trust in these lands and waters is inviolate and could not be sold off, alienated, or even legislated away.
Despite this history, lakefront owners the Gundersons, pushed for exclusive ownership of the beach to exclude residents from the beach between their homes and the waters’ edge. The State of Indiana Department of Natural Resources, LBCA, AGA, and STD defended public ownership and the residents and citizens’ right to use the public trust shoreline for walking, swimming, sunbathing, and similar water-related recreational activities.
On July 24, 2015, LaPorte County Judge Richard Stalbrink wrote a near text-book-perfect decision on the public trust doctrine and ruled against the lakefront owners in favor of the state, LBCA, AGA, and STD, confirming that the beach below the ordinary high water mark to the waters’ edge belongs to the state and is subject to a paramount public trust that cannot be interfered with or impaired by lakefront owners.
First, Judge Stalbrink followed the Supreme Court cases holding that the state obtained title to the waters and bottomlands to the OHWM when it joined the Union in 1816. Second, Stalbrink ruled that this beach land below the OHWM was held in trust for public walking, swimming, fishing access, and other public recreational uses. Third, the Court confirmed that Indiana’s definition of the OHWM was proper, given that the definition takes into account the physical characteristics that define a permanent shoreline as reasonable evidence of the public portion of the shoreline. Finally, Judge Stalbrink recognized that because water levels of Lake Michigan fluctuate, the width of the beach is subject to change, but that there is always a paramount right of the public to access the beach for proper public trust recreational activities.
As Judge Stalbrink observed near the end of his decision, ”Private lot owners cannot impair the public’s right to use the beach below the OHWM for these protected purposes. To hold otherwise would invite the creation of a bach landscape dotted with small, private, fenced and fortified compounds designed to deny the public from enjoying Indiana’s limited access to one of the greatest natural resources in this State.”
(Author’s End Note: See rulings by the Michigan Supreme Court in 2005. Glass v Goeckel, 473 Mich 667, 703 N.W. 2d. 58 (2005), Ohio Supreme Court in Merrill v Ohio Department of Natural Resources, 130 Ohio St. 3d 30, (2011) (on remand before Court of Common Pleas, Lake County, Ohio for factual determination of OHWM); the Gunderson decision upholding public trust in Long Beach should control the decision in the companion case, LBLHA, LLC v Town of Long Beach et al., supra note 2, on remand to the Laporte County trial court).
See Melissa Scanlan, Blue Print for a Great Lakes Trail, Vermont Law School Research Paper No. 14-14 (2014). (Professor Scanlan proposes walking trail within public trust lands and without interference with riparian use based on public trust doctrine in the Great Lakes); James Olson, All Aboard: Navigating the Course for Universal Adoption of the Public Trust Doctrine, 15 Vt. J. E. L. 135 (2014) (Author documents the application of the public trust doctrine in all eight Great Lakes states and two provinces of Canada).
LBLHA, LLC v Town of Long Beach et al., Cause No. 46C01-1212-PL-1941. (The author, Jim Olson, discloses that he was one of the attorneys, along with Kate Redman, Olson, Bzdok & Howard, P.C., Traverse City, Michigan, in this case for the Long Beach Community Alliance in favor of public trust in shoreline).
LBLHA, LLC v Town of Long Beach et al., 28 N.E. 3d. 1077 (2014). The Indiana Court of Appeals remanded to the trial court to add the State of Indiana as a party; this case will not proceed in same fashion as the Gunderson case discussed in this paper, which was decided by the same LaPorte County trial court.
Illinois v Illinois Central Railroad, 146 US 387 (1892).
Gunderson v State et al., LaPorte Superior Court 2, Cause No. 46D02-1404-PL-606, Decision, July 24, 2015, 22 pps. (Judge Stalbrink, Richard, Jr.); Indiana Law Blog, Ind. Decisions, July 28, 2015 http://indianalawblog.com/archives/2015’07/ind_decisions_m_709.html.; see also U.S. v Carstens, 982 F Supp 874, 878 (N.D. Ind. 2013).
Systemic Threats to Great Lakes Demand an Immediate Paradigm Shift to Water as Commons Protected By Public Trust
“We forget that the water cycle and the life cycle are one.” – Jack Cousteau
The systemic threats to the Great Lakes water, like the “dead zone” covering nearly one-third of western Lake Erie, with alarming algal blooms extending along the bays and shores of Lake Michigan, call for immediate action by state governments. That action is demanded by the public trust doctrine.
This ancient legal principle is alive and well in the Great Lakes, and places a fiduciary duty on states to prevent subordination or impairment of the public rights of use and enjoyment of these waters, and the waters and ecosystem that support them.
The states have been called the “sworn guardians” of this trust in the same way a bank trustee is accountable to its beneficiaries. If we demand and act to assure the integrity of these waters using the public trust principle as the benchmark, we will start making the right decisions about water, energy, food, transportation, and communities.
It’s a threatening time with the Great Lakes facing a critical mass of issues such as algal blooms, invasive species like Asian Carp, sewage overflows, threatened diversions, climate change and extreme water levels, overuse and waste from such water-intensive uses as crops, fracking, or poor urban infrastructure. But is an exciting time, with an open slate of new choices for our communities, businesses, farming and food, careers and jobs, transportation, and economy. In this century the public trust principles offer a unifying pathway or beacon to help us get there.
More and more biologists, hydrologists, and other scientists have documented that the billions of dollars spent worldwide in the past several decades to protect crucial conservation lands, international and national parks, wilderness, and biologically significant areas may be futile. The data shows all of the Earth’s natural systems are decline, despite our best efforts. This is because pollution, waste, and the effects of globally harmful practices like climate change or the release of hazardous substances do not know political or legal boundaries.
It is also because these larger systemic or massive harms have overwhelmed not only water and ecosystems but our twentieth century legal framework. Regulation by permit for every drop that is discharged to a sediment basin, treatment plant, lake or stream may have worked for specific place at a given time. But the fact is that these regulations have legalized lesser amounts of pollution or higher amounts of water losses and waste than watersheds and larger ecosystems like the Great Lakes can withstand.
For example, the International Joint Commission has documented and called for adaptive management practices to respond to the extreme changes in water level caused by climate change. Scientists, including those studying global warming, ice cover, precipitation, and evaporation, have documented that climate change is resulting in droughts with exponentially harmful effects on water levels and impacts on wetlands, streams, lakes, biological systems, fish, and habitat. Data shows a direct connection between the “dead zone” caused by non-point run off of phosphorous and nutrients into Lake Erie. The phosphorous combined with warmer water temperatures, clearer water from invasive species, to produce a toxic algal bloom covering nearly one-third of Lake Erie, closing beaches, killing fish, damaging fisheries, swimming, boating and recreation. These same blooms have been showing up in Michigan’s Saginaw Bay and Wisconsin’s Green Bay. Then there are the quagga mussels and hundreds of other invasive species, including the threat of Asian Carp that would alter and potentially wipe out a billion dollar fishery in the Great Lakes.
“Extreme energy” – massive, intensive, unconventional desecration of water, nature, and communities – is another example. As the global water crisis and droughts around the North America and the world intensify, there will be increasing demand to force water out of the Great Lakes basin to the southwest, the oil and gas development fields in the west, or to grow crops here to export food to drought or water-poor countries like China and the Middle East – so-called “virtual water.” Demands for diversions and exports of food and water will run up against demands for water for industries, food, urban areas, and recreation – all the backbone of our economy.
A dramatic example is the unfolding drama over the expanding use of pipelines and shipments of oil and natural gas from the Alberta tar sands and North Dakota heavy oil and natural gas through and over the Great Lakes region. Canada proposes two double the volume of tar sands oil the Alberta Clipper – Line 67 – will transport to Superior, Wisconsin on Lake Superior. From there a much dirtier, heavier oil with bitumen may be transported through Line 5 across Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, under the Mackinac Straits of Lake Huron and Lake Michigan, down through Michigan and under the St. Clair River to Sarnia. A spill under the best response conditions would cover 25 square miles of the Straits area. A spill from a ship carrying heavy oil would have equally decimating impacts.
So what framework and legal principles will work to save the Great Lakes and the rights and interests of the 40 million people who live around the largest freshwater surface water system in the world – 20 percent of the world’s fresh surface water? The public trust doctrine and its set of discrete principles that have protected water from private control and abuse for over 1,500 years.
Public trust waters cannot be subordinated or transferred to the primary or exclusive control of private interests and gain.
Public trust waters and the right of public use and enjoyment cannot be significantly impaired from one generation to the next.
The states and provinces of Canada have a fiduciary duty to account to and assure their citizens that principles 1 and 2 have not and will not be violated.
These are the benchmarks for everything we face and how we should decide what is acceptable and what is not in terms of living up to the public trust doctrine. What’s been hard for sometime, that is until these recent systemic threats, is to understand that these waters and their management by states as trustees are commons, not private property. Markets and concepts of private property apply to private things. Public trust principles apply to common public things. It’s that simple. If we take to understand what is happening, and apply these benchmarks, we, our children and grandchildren will share in the same enjoyment and as we have in these waters held and managed under a solemn perpetual trust.
If you want to read about the history and principles under the public trust doctrine that apply to the Great Lakes basin in the U.S. and Canada, read the article in full, click here, or for reprints or hard copies of the article, contact Vermont Journal of Environmental Law editor Emily Remmel or visit vjel.vermontlaw.edu.
As Maude Barlow puts it in her new book Blue Future: Protecting the Planet for People and the Planet Forever (The New Press 2013), “Olson writes in the Vermont Journal of Environmental Law, ‘a possible answer is the immediate adoption of a new narrative, with principles grounded in science, values, and policy, that views the systemic threats we face as part of the single connected hydrological whole, a commons governed by public trust principles.’ He goes on to say: ‘[t]he public trust is necessary to solve these threats that directly impact traditional public trust resources. The most obvious whole is not a construct of the mind, but the one in which we live – the hydrosphere, basin, and watersheds through which water flows, evaporates, transpires, is used, transferred, and is discharged [and recharged] in a continuous cycle. Every arc of the water cycle flows through and is affected by everything else, reminiscent of what Jacques Cousteau once said, ‘We forget that the water cycle and the life cycle are one.'”
In a show of judicial analysis and sympathy toward the importance of land use stability and values of local communities, the recent Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s ruling upholding local government regulation of the risks of fracking sends a strong message: courts will look with skepticism and scrutinize attempts by state legislators to help special interests overrun local communities’ traditional land use and police powers to pass ordinances that address fracking for oil and gas. The decision is especially important in consideration of mainly vacuous federal regulation and tepid state regulation, where fracking’s substantial effects on land use, water, health, and quality of life are largely ignored.
In sum, the court’s decision refuses to allow a state legislature to take away local governments’ zoning or local power regarding expectations of their community and residents, thus upholding and retaining local governments’ ability to have a say in the location of land uses and the stability of their community, including regulation of industrial uses like fracking through land use districts and special use permits. This precedent is important for other Great Lakes states like Michigan with a long and strong history of enabling local governments with zoning powers because it protects their ability to use zoning powers as a legal and useful tool for protecting land uses, water, air, and health from the impacts and risks of fracking. Click here for more about FLOW’s local government ordinance program to address fracking impacts at the community level.
Basically, Pennsylvania’s prohibition on local regulations/ordinances was general in nature as to “oil and gas operations.” Since zoning power was and is delegated by states as a “state delegated specific power” and Pennsylvania zoning law does not exempt regulating the location of oil and gas operations or wells as land uses through districts and permitting schemes, the Pennsylvania court properly found that a general law prohibiting exercise of local governmental police power cannot be used to trump or limit a specific delegation of power like zoning. The Pennsylvania court also chastised the legislature for an overly general and vague prohibition, thus leaving room for local governments to exercise some power, and specifically their delegated zoning power. However, the Court also refused to allow the state legislature, by a broad sweeping law, to remove or take away zoning or the general exercise of local ordinance powers regarding expectations and reliance of communities and their residents on the stability of their land use plan and ordinances. This general reasoning is very important in states like Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Michigan, with strong local government traditions and involvement, including specified powers or preferences toward local governments in state constitutional provisions.
Here are five key points (with a few nuances) about how the Pennsylvania ruling relates to Michigan:
In Michigan, there is no general prohibition on local governments to pass “police power” ordinances to address risks and harms and protect property, health, safety and general welfare. Hence, local governments in Michigan are free to regulate to the point that the ordinance does not outright prohibit a use but addresses the risks of harm or concern for protection of the public health, safety and welfare.
Unlike Pennsylvania, in Michigan the state-delegated zoning statute to counties and townships specifically exempts “oil and gas wells, drilling, completion, production, and closure or abandonment.” However, the exemption is a narrow one. The Michigan Supreme Court has ruled that the “oil and gas well” exemption does not apply to ancillary uses and facilities related to oil and gas wells, such as pipelines, access roads, haul and transfer facilities, storage, sweetening facilities, pumps, and high-volume water wells such as those required for horizontal fracturing. At least as to the location of such wells and related facilities, a special use permit or other zoning regulation to assure compatibility with existing land uses, water uses essential to a land use district such as farming, residential, or park and recreation, could be required.
On the other hand, like Pennsylvania, in Michigan there is no such specific exemption for “oil and gas wells” in the state delegated zoning power to cities. So, unlike townships and counties in Michigan, cities are similar to the Pennsylvania situation. If the legislature attempts to prohibit generally what the zoning power to cities specifically allows, i.e. does not exempt, the Pennsylvania case would be useful precedent
In Michigan there are limitations, although not outright prohibitions, on local government police power ordinances that regulate the location of public utilities or natural gas or other pipelines that are certified by the Michigan Public Service Commission (with the exception of interstate federally certified lines, which are not subject to local ordinances). However, local governments, in these instances, may require by ordinance essential or critical information concerning:
use and safety of roads,
environmental and hazardous substances disclosures,
bonds, indemnities, and insurance,
reporting and inspection reports, and
action plans in the case of spills or emergency.
Michigan’s 2008 water withdrawal law, with its corollary Water Withdrawal Assessment Tool (WWAT) contains a provision that prohibits local ordinances from regulating water withdrawals. However, this law does not regulate or address land use or zoning, such as the location, site plan, and facilities themselves. It follows that local communities could, through their state-delegated zoning power, regulate the location of water wells to assure they are harmonious and not incompatible with existing land uses.
It would be quite reasonable for a local community to restrict high-volume water wells, pumps, and facilities and pipelines through land use districts or special use permits. Indeed, the Pennsylvania court decision would provide solid precedent for this, because, as described above, a general prohibition on local ordinances would not preempt or limit the scope of specifically state-delegated zoning power.
So when it comes to high-volume water wells for oil and gas development, local communities should be able to regulate them through zoning. Why? Because for townships or counties, water wells are “ancillary” to the oil and gas well and therefore not within the “oil and gas well” zoning exemption, and for cities because there is no oil and gas exemption in the city zoning law.
Finally, in a somewhat ironic twist, the 2008 water withdrawal law expressly exempts oil and gas development from having to comply with the WWAT or 2008 water withdrawal law. Hence, arguably it would be inconsistent for an oil and gas company to argue that local governments could regulate their water withdrawals when they do not need a permit or fall with the regulatory purview of the water withdrawal law in the first place.
But there is another twist to the irony. The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) by internal directive requires oil and gas companies to comply with the WWAT to show no adverse environmental impacts. However, no permit is required under the 2008 water law, and the DEQ directive is more lenient in its application than the WWAT and its application and permitting requirements. Despite these twists, local governments, in any event, have the zoning power to restrict or require special use permits for high-volume water wells based on location and land use issues as opposed to withdrawal issues.
In conclusion, Michigan law already empowers local governments with a broader and more effective ability to address fracking impacts via municipal zoning and police power ordinances. However, this Pennsylvania Supreme Court case is still very relevant for supporting the broader effort throughout the Great Lakes and Midwest region to protect our land, water and common resources, and community well-being from a loosely regulated in terms of land use and impacts of fracking oil and gas development.
Read on for the full story from TribLive.com
PA State Supreme Court rules municipalities can limit what gas drillers can do
December 19, 2013
By: Timothy Puko, Pittsburgh Tribune-Review
After nine years of drilling, three years of debate and 14 months of court deliberation, Pennsylvania is back where it started, with shale gas companies and municipal governments at odds over how to manage the Marcellus shale natural gas boom.
The State Supreme Court ended more than a year of uneasy stalemate on Thursday when it struck down oil and gas law reforms that were supposed to limit municipal powers on drilling. The 4-2 decision allows municipal governments to keep blocking off some, though not all, of their neighborhoods from drilling, and subjecting drillers to reviews before permitting drilling.
The long-awaited decision undoes a key element of Gov. Tom Corbett’s signature legislation: It strips the oil and gas law reforms known as Act 13 of the biggest benefit they gave drilling companies. It gives environmentalists and municipal governments a potentially historic precedent to challenge drilling all over the state, reigniting legal battles that were brewing before the case went to state courts last year.
“It’s a great day for all the residents here in Pennsylvania,” said Deron Gabriel, commissioner in South Fayette, one of five Pittsburgh suburbs to lead the legal challenge that started in March 2012. “Fundamentally, we’re vindicated. … We’re able to continue to zone and keep industrial activities where they should be — in industrial areas.”
Both Corbett and members of the Marcellus Shale Coalition industry group called the decision a disappointment. Officials of the coalition and the Pennsylvania Independent Oil and Gas Association said they want to work with municipal groups to find solutions to their conflicts.
“We must not allow (Thursday’s) ruling to send a negative message to job creators and families who depend on the energy industry,” Corbett said. “I will continue to work with members of the House and Senate to ensure that Pennsylvania’s thriving energy industry grows and provides jobs while balancing the interests of local communities.”
The passage of Act 13 culminated three years of debate on how to modernize the state’s rules to manage the new rush of shale gas drilling. Horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing began in the Marcellus shale about nine years ago, booming to more than 7,400 unconventional wells statewide, according to state records.
Passed in February 2012, Act 13 was supposed to have a three-pronged effect. Two — an update to environmental protections and a fee on deep-shale wells — remain. But the effort to help drillers by making uniform land-use laws in all 2,500 municipalities was part of the challenge and the part the court struck down.
The rules would have required municipalities to allow drilling, wastewater pits and seismic-testing explosives even in residential areas, which Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille called a “remarkable … revolution” on existing law. It would have allowed pads within 300 feet of existing buildings, which Castille said effectively stripped municipalities’ ability to plan for development.
Municipalities previously had the power to decide where and when drilling could happen, and South Fayette, Cecil, Peters, Mt. Pleasant and Robinson in Washington County sued to keep that power. The law put them in conflict with a constitutional mandate to protect residents and property rights by not allowing them to keep drilling away from schools, parks and businesses, they argued.
The Supreme Court heard the case in October 2012 and took 14 months to craft a broad, 162-page decision. Castille wrote it for three members of the majority, and a fourth wrote a concurring opinion. Castille, a Republican Vietnam War veteran and former Philadelphia prosecutor, wrote at length about the state’s history of environmental degradation.
He quoted a passage on deforestation from the timber industry, listed a series of local environmental disasters including the 1948 Donora smog tragedy and noted the billions needed to repair decades of environmental damage from coal mining, which he later said may be rivaled by shale gas extraction. The state has a “notable history of what appears retrospectively to have been a shortsighted exploitation of its bounteous environment,” Castille wrote.
His argument attempts to re-establish the importance of the state Constitution’s Environmental Rights Amendment, the pivotal law cited in his opinion. That amendment empowers municipalities to protect the environment, and the state overstepped its powers by ignoring it, forcing them to accept uniform rules for gas drilling, Castille said.
“A new regulatory regime permitting industrial uses as a matter of right in every type of pre-existing zoning district is incapable of conserving or maintaining the constitutionally protected aspects of the public environment and of a certain quality of life,” he wrote. “Protection of environmental values … is a quintessential local issue that must be tailored to local conditions.”
The ruling is likely to trigger a flurry of activity from drilling industry lobbyists and lawyers, experts said as they awaited the high court’s decision.
The industry may pressure state lawmakers to try again to streamline rules. One option may be to write a model ordinance for municipalities, then pass a law that allows them to collect impact fees only if they use that ordinance, said Ken Komoroski, an attorney at Downtown-based Morgan, Lewis & Bockius LLP.
“If they can’t do it with a sledgehammer, they’re going to have to do it with a carrot,” attorney Kevin McKeegan, a land-use law expert with Meyer, Unkovic & Scott LLP, Downtown, said last December.
Timothy Puko is a staff writer for Total Trib Media. Reach him at 412-320-7991 or email@example.com.
Maude Barlow and I arrived in Bayfield, Ontario, the 15th stop of the Great Lakes Need Great Friends tour, on Friday evening. It is a beautiful village and Main Street is full of quaint, cozy and independent restaurants, inns, café’s, art galleries and stores.
A reception was held Friday evening with fellow water activists, conservationists, environmentalists and people who simply love the Great Lakes. On Saturday, Roger and Pat Lewington of the Trail Association invited Maude, Environmental Defence’s Nancy Goucher and Alanna Scott and I for a boat ride on the beautiful waters of Lake Huron. In the afternoon, we joined others for an Urban Pole Walk on the Saw Mill Trail to raise funds for the Alexandra Marine and General Hospital Foundation. There was also an art show and silent auction showcasing the talent of local artists.
It didn’t take long to see the strong sense of community that Bayfield has. Roger explained how the community members are always helping each other out. And volunteers of the Trail Association understand the connection between protecting the trails and local waters and Great Lakes issues.
Bayfield is smack in the middle of Chemical Valley in Aamjiwnaang First Nation and Sarnia and the proposed nuclear waste dumps in Saugeen Shores and Kincardine. Bayfield is also faced with agricultural run-off, E. coli and drastically low water levels that plague much of Lake Huron’s communities. See Maude in the picture to the right where the wall behind her marks the receding lake levels in Bayfield.
The Saturday evening event was sold out and the Town Hall where the event was held was jam packed. The Town Hall is a beautiful old building that was saved by locals years back from being destroyed.
Maude gave an inspiring speech to a fully engaged crowd. She warned the audience that “we are a world running out of water” and talked about the “vicious new threats” to the Great Lakes are fracking and pipelines carrying tar sands and fracked oil and gas. Maude stressed the need for a new water ethic where water is at the centre of all policy including trade, economics, the environment and health, which she outlines in her new book Blue Future released Saturday night.
Some ways of protecting the Great Lakes include helping to stop Line 67 that would carry bitumen from the Alberta tar sands to Lake Superior, urging Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne to stop a pipeline project that would bring fracked gas from the Marcellus shale to Toronto, calling for a moratorium on fracking in Ontario and the Great Lakes and making Great Lakes communities Blue Communities.
Bayfield’s beaches and marina have their Blue Flag label. The Trail Association volunteers and others have been asking Mayor Bill Dowson for many years to ban bottled water as well as recognize the human right to water and promote public water services in order to become a Blue Community. After attending Maude’s talk on Saturday, we hope Mayor Dowson will consider making the town of Bluewater, which the village of Bayfield belongs to, a Blue Community.
Congratulations to Ray and Paula Letheren, Roger and Pat Lewington and the other volunteers of the Trail Association for organizing such an amazing event and for all the fantastic work they do to protect the Great Lakes. They are an inspiring example of what it means to be stewards of the Great Lakes.
Thousands demand Lone Pine drop its NAFTA lawsuit against Québec’s fracking moratorium
(Ottawa, May 31, 2013) – Two weeks after the launch of a public petition, organizers have received over 3,000 signatures demanding that energy company Lone Pine Resources drop its $250 million NAFTA (North America Free Trade Agreement) lawsuit against Canada for Québec’s moratorium on fracking.
“People across Canada and the United States are outraged that a company would claim it has a ‘right’ to frack under trade deals like NAFTA, and that we might have to pay Lone Pine Resources not to drill in the St. Lawrence,” says Emma Lui, water campaigner with the Council of Canadians. “There should be no ‘right’ to frack, or to dig a mine, or lay a pipeline. Investment treaties cannot be allowed to override community decisions.”
“Governments must have the flexibility to say ‘no’ to fracking and other environmentally destructive practices without trade rules getting in the way,” said Ilana Solomon, Trade Representative with the Sierra Club. “The fact that a U.S. oil and gas corporation has threatened to bring a trade case against the government of Canada over a law intended to protect the health and well-being of its citizens shows just how backward our trade rules have become.”
In 2011, the Quebec government placed a moratorium on all new drilling permits until a strategic environmental evaluation was completed. When the current Quebec government was elected last year, it extended the moratorium to all exploration and development of shale gas in the province. Last fall, Lone Pine indicated that it planned to challenge Quebec’s fracking moratorium. Instead of going to court, the Calgary-based company is using its incorporation in Delaware to access the investment protection chapter of NAFTA, which is only available to U.S. and Mexican companies, to challenge the Quebec moratorium in front of a paid, largely unaccountable investment tribunal. The company says the Québec moratorium is “arbitrary” and “capricious,” and that it deprives Lone Pine of its right to profit from fracking for natural gas in Québec’s Saint Lawrence Valley.
“Lone Pine must drop its scandalous lawsuit against this legitimate policy of the Quebec government, who has just been listening to its people,” says Pierre-Yves Serinet, coordinator of the Quebec Network on Continental Integration (RQIC). “These provisions of such free trade agreements are direct attacks on the sovereign right of the Quebec government to govern for the welfare of its population. It’s astonishing that the negotiations between Canada and the European Union (CETA) follow the same blueprint. Time has come to end the excessive powers to multinationals,” added the spokesperson for RQIC.
“No trade tribunal should allow a company to sue a State that tries to protect water, which is a common good at the core of the survival and the health of the peoples and the ecosystems. Eau Secours! presses the Quebec government to also change its antiquated law on mining, to improve its water law and its sustainable development regulations to clearly reaffirm this willingness of protection,” declared Martine Châtelain, president of the coalition for a responsible management of water Eau secours!.
“Water in North America is part of a single system, starting with hydrologic cycle, and subject to generational public trust responsibility,” says Jim Olson, Chair and President of FLOW. “A moratorium that exercises this responsibility can hardly be challenged as a regulation: public trust and water have inherent limits.”
The NAFTA dispute and letter-writing campaign is happening as the Parti Québécois introduces legislation that would ban fracking in the St. Lawrence Lowlands for up to five years. The organizations involved in the letter-writing campaign are encouraged by the decision but support a complete Quebec-wide moratorium on fracking for oil and gas.