Communities fight back

People across the country are finding new ways to set democratic limits to corporate power.
Jane Greer Editorial


The stink at Bill Felmlee's house is so strong he can't sit on his own porch. He can't have guests over for a barbecue, he can't hang his clothes on the line, and sometimes, he says, his lips and eyes burn. The cause? Corporate hog barns, huge structures housing thousands of animals in factory-like conditions, which invaded his Pennsylvania valley more than a decade ago. It would take more than disgust and discomfort to make Felmlee leave, though; this is where he was born and raised. But he knows others who have left.

When sniffed for a few minutes on a summer's drive through the countryside, manure has a vaguely pleasing if pungent odor. To residents of many agricultural communities, however, it's become a major environmental threat, endangering ground water, property values, and overall quality of life. And there's plenty of it nowadays, thanks to the proliferation of the corporate hog farms that are the source of our low-cost bacon and pork chops.

While the threat from hog manure is as near as your nostrils in Fannett Township, where Felmlee lives, it is also a vivid example of an issue intruding on communities throughout the country: corporate privilege. A little-known series of Supreme Court decisions dating back more than a century has awarded corporations legal rights that trump those of individual citizens, and corporations often use their rights to overpower the democratically expressed wishes of communities. Increasingly, citizens are becoming aware of this, and some communities are beginning to fight back in innovative ways. They've learned that fighting individual corporate infractions one incident at a time is chancy and that their energy can be put to better use by working to change the laws that empower corporations. Doing so will likely mean eventually taking their case to the Supreme Court. What the courts gave, the reasoning goes, they can also take away-and they can restore communities' democratic decision-making power.

Groups in Pennsylvania, California, and Colorado have stepped forward to accept the challenge of redefining the role of corporations in community life. Rural Pennsylvania has been afflicted by two equally smelly problems-the manure from corporate hog farms and the land application of sewage sludge from wastewater treatment plants-and citizens there are organizing to implement local environmental laws tougher than the state laws passed at the behest of agribusinesses. Similarly, towns in California are mobilizing to protect themselves from corporate encroachment by educating the citizenry and passing resolutions declaring that corporations are not "persons" entitled to the same rights as people. And Boulder, Colorado, has pioneered a business alliance among locally owned enterprises to prevent the arrival of corporate chain stores. Whether the problem is hog manure or the siting of a new Barnes and Noble store, citizens are proving that they can make some headway against corporate interests.

In Pennsylvania, citizens are mobilizing on several fronts. The hog manure problem escalated in 1997, when the state legislature passed the Nutrient Management Act to regulate the disposal of animal waste on corporate farms. This was previously subject to local ordinances; the state law, championed by corporate interests, provides that municipalities can no longer create more stringent laws than those specified in the act. Many communities complain not only that they've lost the power to deal with a significant problem but also that the state law loosens standards and is not easily enforceable. After its passage, many corporate hog farms began using manure lagoons to store waste; the act permits this but the lagoons often leak, contaminating wells and ground water. And there is little that affected communities can do.

Though the Nutrient Management Act deals specifically with farm animal waste, it initiated an important discussion about corporate-privilege issues affecting many communities. Whether the problem was hog manure or sewage sludge, townships began turning to the source of their power, the state constitution, which allows them to pass laws protecting the health and well-being of their own citizens. The Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund (CELDF), a nonprofit organization based in Chambersburg, has researched the corporate farm issue at the request of more than fifty concerned Pennsylvania municipalities.

Thomas Linzey of CELDF has produced a model ordinance, based on the laws of nine Midwestern states, that bars farm operations not owned by families. So far, ten municipalities in five Pennsylvania counties have passed versions of the CELDF ordinance. The premise is that family-owned farms have a greater stake in the health and well-being of the community and thus create fewer problems than corporate farms. A case in point is the small Bucks County organic pig farm owned and operated by Kermit Moyer. Moyer believes that small farms are essential for maintaining a stable local economy that keeps area farmers, feed suppliers, and meat processors all in business.

Not surprisingly, corporations and their allies are resisting, both in the courts and the state legislature. Fulton County farmer Rick Leese joined two other farmers to sue Belfast Township in November 2001 for violating the rights of agribusiness corporations. Leese has contracted with a corporation for twelve years. He owns the barn, and the corporation owns the 3,400 hogs, a fairly common arrangement. "To me, it's about the viability of the farms," Leese says. "If you don't grow and get larger, you're out of business." For him, the situation is a matter of simple economics. "If you want cheap food, then you have to have big farms."

What would happen to corporate operations like Leese's under anti-corporate-ownership ordinances? Linzey says that in some cases, they are permitted to continue until their contract expires, but other townships have written compromise clauses that permit the farms to continue operation as long as they keep renewing an existing contract with the same corporation.

In the state capital of Harrisburg, agribusinesses represented by trade associations lobbied for a bill to limit the rights of townships to regulate agricultural operations, including the right to override state laws concerning ownership of corporate farms. The bill also sought to assign townships the responsibility of paying corporations' legal expenses for any suits that might arise. The State Senate approved it 48-2 before the opposition caught wind of it last May. A coalition of thirty-five organizations quickly formed, including the AFL-CIO, the United Mineworkers, the Sierra Club, and the Pennsylvania Farmers Union, and successfully blocked the bill in the State House of Representatives. The Clarion News in Clarion, Pennsylvania, editorialized, "Competition in a free market is good, but only if the playing field is level. No one elected these corporations-their power stems from the money they give politicians. [The bill], further tipping the scales away from local self-determination, is fundamentally undemocratic."

While some Pennsylvania counties were battling corporate farms, others were lobbying against corporate sewage sludge haulers. The sludge, which is produced by wastewater treatment plants, is delivered by corporate haulers to farmers who have agreed to take it as a form of free fertilizer. The sludge is then spread over fields.

Like the hog manure, sludge has people worried. It has a penetrating odor and has been linked to various ailments. "They tell us the sludge isn't bad for us, but I don't believe them," says seventy-two-year-old activist Barbara Songer, a resident of Clarion. In a December 2002 article, USA Today reported that thirty-nine outbreaks of illness in Pennsylvania, California, Florida, Virginia, and eleven other states had been attributed to the spreading of sewage sludge. Environmental Protection Agency officials acknowledge that the jury is still out on the matter, although they say responsible application and monitoring using EPA guidelines should minimize risk.

Porter Township in Clarion County is among several communities that have resisted delivery of the sludge. They have instituted a per-ton fee for testing before permitting the sludge to be applied. In late 2002, the Alcosan corporation, a Pennsylvania hauler, threatened to have state courts overturn this regulation. In response, Porter took the bold step of passing a law stating that corporations do not have the same constitutional rights as people. Under the terms of this law, known as the Corporate Personhood Elimination and Democracy Protection Ordinance, the township can pass and maintain any law that it deems fit to protect the health, safety, and welfare of its own citizenry, free of corporate influence. According to Linzey, it is the first municipal law of its kind in the United States.

Agribusiness associations have challenged the legitimacy of Porter's law and others like it to regulate both sewage sludge and the corporate farms. "Pennsylvania has some of the toughest environmental restrictions," says Walt Peechatka, chief executive officer of the agribusiness trade group, PennAg Industries Association. "The larger scale operations do better environmentally than the smaller ones because they can implement the best practices. We set the bar high for our corporations."

Linzey welcomes the conflict between townships that pass their own laws and corporations who view these laws as unconstitutional. He is hoping that a corporate suit against a township will become the vehicle that will carry the corporate privilege issue to the Supreme Court. It is there that corporations initially received the rights of "personhood" under the Fourteenth Amendment, and it is there, Linzey hopes, that they will lose those rights.

Like Pennsylvania, California is home to communities that have organized a strong anticorporate defense.

Arcata is a small, liberal community in California's redwood country, on the Pacific coast north of San Francisco. There are no major corporate players here. Yet it has taken a leading role in passing legislation designed to control corporations. In 1998, Arcata voters passed Measure F, which stipulated that the town must have two local meetings to educate residents about corporations and democracy, and that it must convene a committee of the city council to protect municipal interests against corporate encroachment. The committee would establish minimum standards for corporations hoping to get a license to do business in Arcata.

The first town meeting drew more than four hundred people and the second about a hundred. Not everyone in Arcata was thrilled. The Santa Rosa Press Democrat quoted one business owner as saying, "We need some bigger players to help stabilize the economy. We should have our welcome mats out, and this is not a welcome mat."

Measure F was inspired by Arcata resident Paul Cienfuegos, a founder of Democracy Unlimited, a nonprofit group that advocates for the rights of citizens over corporations. In turn, Measure F inspired similar initiatives elsewhere in California. In 2000, Point Arena voters approved a resolution committing the city to educating the public about the role of corporations in public life; the resolution specifies that corporations are not to be considered persons. Campaigns for measures to restrict corporations are under way now in Shasta City and in San Francisco, which would be the first major city to join the effort.

In Colorado, the Boulder Independent Business Alliance (BIBA) was launched in 1998 to protect against encroachment by corporate chains. Under the leadership of Jeff Milchin, a social activist, and David Bolduc, the owner of an independent bookstore, BIBA organized area businesses to promote the advantages of local independent ownership over absentee corporate ownership.

According to BIBA, local ownership offers economic advantages and ensures that the community maintains its distinctive character. It contends that local businesses are more invested in the community and thus more likely to use the services of area vendors. They also believe that the products and services of local businesses are geared to the needs of the specific community and that local owners are more willing to innovate. BIBA promotes its members' products and services by offering special discounts and incentives that encourage residents to shop locally. Its membership currently comprises 140 businesses.

Although chain stores had not made a breakthrough in Boulder when BIBA was founded, the writing was on the wall, according to Balduc. "The trend was becoming obvious." Milchin was especially anxious to preserve the downtown area's character. "I wanted to see a real variety of local businesses," he says. He also wanted a model for local business alliances that could be replicated elsewhere. The American Independent Business Alliance was officially established in 2002, based on the model pioneered in Boulder. So far, eight communities across the country have adopted the program.

Most activists are quick to assert that they are not against corporations per se; rather, they oppose laws that give corporate rights precedence over individual rights and thus over democracy. As Virginia Rasmussen of the nonprofit organizations Program on Corporations, Law, and Democracy and Women's International League for Peace and Freedom told an audience at a conference in New York City last spring, "This is not anticorporate work. This is the work of healing our body politic, of coming to the defense of our common good. It's the work of empowering democracy."

Reporters David Wolman and Heather Wax contributed to this article. see below for links to related stories and resources.

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