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'Groundswell' Environmental-Rights Push Kicks off in State College

on July 03, 2011 10:36 AM

A movement to incorporate environmental rights -- and a local hydraulic-fracturing ban -- into State College borough's home-rule charter celebrated an official kick-off Saturday, drawing at least several dozen supporters to Sidney Friedman Park.

The movement is led by Groundswell PA, a new advocacy group founded by 2011 Penn State landscape-architecture graduate Braden Crooks, 23. He said its most immediate goal is to place, on State College's November general-election ballot, a voter referendum on an environmental bill of rights.

That proposed document, intended as a revision to the borough home-rule charter, asserts that all borough residents have a right to clean water, a right to clean air and a right to sustainable energy.

It also underscores the community's right to self-governance and would ban any future gas drilling within borough limits. It would give rights to ecosystems -- including the rights to clean water and air -- and would ban any "non-sustainable energy production" in the borough, the document shows.

The push "is about environmental rights, but it's about people's rights, too," Groundswell supporter and event emcee Rob Egan said Saturday. He underscored the group's vision that "people are more important than corporations."

About 20 people are directly involved in the Groundswell organization, which formally coalesced in recent weeks.

Crooks, an environmental activist who came to Penn State from northern Virginia, said the language in the group's proposed ballot referendum was drafted by the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund, an advocacy group with legal expertise in the field.

One of CELDF's community organizers, Shireen Parsons, spoke at the Groundswell kick-off on Saturday.

"We need to build democracy, and the only place to do that is at the local level," said Parsons, of Carbon County.

She said government at the federal and state levels has been bought and paid for by corporations. But as natural-gas drilling -- particularly hydraulic fracturing -- expands across the country, she went on, "it's getting to the point where people are justifiably terrified" of its environmental impacts.

"This is a catastrophe that's coming at us. This requires unusual responses," she said, asserting that hydraulic fracturing -- the deep-underground gas-drilling process -- is routinely connected to groundwater contamination.

In November, the City of Pittsburgh became the first Pennsylvania municipality to ban hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, within its borders, as city officials worried over its environmental effects. Drillers there had been aiming to drill under the city for gas.

Since then, at least eight Pennsylvania municipalities have adopted environmental measures similar to the one Groundswell is promoting in State College, Crooks said.

While no natural-gas-drilling prospects appear imminent in State College borough, Crooks said the town sits atop the Utica Shale -- a gas-rich reserve beneath the heavily publicized Marcellus Shale. The Utica has been identified in industry reports as another eventual source of natural gas.

"State College could be drilled," Crooks said. But beyond that eventual threat, he said, Groundswell is focusing political effort in the borough as a means of building momentum for the larger environmental bill-of-rights movement.

"The more people who pass this, the better," Crooks said. Already, he said, some residents of Ferguson and Rush townships, also in Centre County, have begun to look into similar measures for their municipalities.

Because State College is a home-rule municipality, its residents can vote directly -- via referendum -- on changes to its governing document: the home-rule charter. In municipalities without a home-rule charter, though, provisions such as environmental bills of rights or fracking bans would likely fall to municipal elected officials, such as township boards of supervisors.

Crooks said Groundswell needs just more than 700 petition signatures by Aug. 8 to get the environmental bill-of-rights referendum, including the fracking ban, on the State College borough ballot in November. Before the three-hour kick-off event Saturday, he said, the group had collected about 200 signatures from borough voters spanning varied political ideologies.

The petition drive will continue through the Central Pennsylvania Festival of the Arts, as Groundswell aims to collect at least 1,000 signatures, Crooks said. (Additional details are available on the Groundswell website and on its Facebook page; a PDF copy of the petition language is available via Transition Centre County.)

Additional promotional events to follow up on Saturday's kick-off are expected, too. The weekend gathering included live musical performances -- including an appearance by local group Biscuit Jam -- and a theatrical event that will be performed in full at a later date, Crooks said.

"Basically," he said, "this is to build a movement in a lot of places."

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