Halfway between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh is Tamaqua- a town and borough of about 7000 people in eastern Schuylkill Region, Pennsylvania. The town became the first U.S. municipality to recognise legal rights for nature in September, 2006. Around 100 communities have since passed ordinances seeking for scrapping the legal rights bestowed to corporations and instead granting them to ecosystems and communities around those ecosystems.
Throughout the 20th century, in Tamaqua area, mining was the most essential economic activity but has declined significantly in the last few decades. What remains now are gigantic pits, some twice the size of the town itself. The issue cropped up when the owners of these pits made them available to companies outside the state for dumping sludge. The toxic sludge-- combining human waste with hospital waste and chemical waste from industries-- came from as far as New York or New Jersey. Farmers were encouraged to use it as bio-fertilizers in their fields. The dumping was threefold, including sludge, river dredging, and flying ash and there were no protections being offered against leaching. Runoff went into the rivers that run by Tamaqua homes and join the Schuylkill River that feeds the larger Schuylkill that supplies Philadelphia. A lot of people were drinking contaminated water. However, the dumping did actually stop in 2007, but only because of a permit violation as the coal company owed taxes, which the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) eventually paid.
The negative impact of the toxic sludge became very evident when, in 1994, an 11 year old boy named Tony Behun died from a staph infection after being exposed to the sludge in the area. Later, in 1996, a 17 year old boy (Daniel Pennock) also died from a staph infection following exposure. The Environmental Protection Agency has noted that sewage sludge can cause staph infections.
Two groups played a key role in mobilizing against the sludge dumping: The Army for a Clean Environment, with about 1000 members who fought against the toxic sludge dumping, and the Community Environmental Legal Defence Fund (CELDF), which was started in 1995 in Schuylkill Township, outside of Philadelphia by Thomas Linzey to help communities stop development projects that posed public health or environmental risks.
Before Tamaqua Borough Sewage Sludge Ordinance came into place, the CELDF had passed dozens of local ordinances striking down corporate personhood. The ordinance was closely tied to the idea that the environment has inalienable rights and that any human residing close to the ecosystem has the right to act as a legal guardian of that threatened ecosystem. Damages recovered through this process may be used to restore the ecosystems and the communities that are affected in the process. The ordinance was a follow up to the long process of making the local communities aware of their democratic rights.
The purpose of the ordinance was illustrated as, “ an ordinance to protect the health, safety, and general welfare of the citizens and environment of Tamaqua borough by banning corporations from engaging in the land application of sewage sludge; by banning persons from using corporations to engage in land application of sewage sludge; by providing for the testing of sewage sludge prior to land application in the borough; by removing constitutional powers from corporations within the borough; by recognizing and enforcing the rights of residents to defend natural communities and ecosystems; and by otherwise adopting the Pennsylvania regulations concerning the land application of sewage sludge.” (Ordinance No. 612, 2006)”.
Regarding rights of nature, the ordinance explicitly states that: "Borough residents, natural communities, and ecosystems shall be considered "persons" for the purposes of the enforcement of the civil rights of those residents, natural communities, and ecosystems." (Ordinance No. 612, 2006)
The ordinance council has declared that corporations will be treated as ‘state actors’ and any attempts by state agencies or corporations to challenge the ordinance would result in a Borough wide consultation process that would determine steps of self-control of the borough.
The legality of the method was challenged in the courts by attorney generals arguing that the passed ordinances are illegal and unconstitutional. There is another challenge that state law trumps the local law in the U.S’s federal system and the ordinance challenges the state law. Also, there was a possibility that the next council elected may decide to try to nullify the ordinances or disregard them. Still, the ordinance signals a paradigm shift, a move away from unsustainable practices that harm communities, and a move towards local self-government.